Designing for Wearables: Tremendous Opportunity But Not Without Challenges

There's been much buzz about wearables in recent years but little real traction so far. While Apple’s Watch announcement this month shined a spotlight on the segment, there are still design and supply-chain challenges to overcome before engineers and industry players can begin to fully take advantage of the rapidly increasing wearables opportunity.

Many believe the wide-open wearables space, a hot topic at the Designers of Things Conference, will be won not by a single industry player or platform, but by the maker community and open-source replications on designs.

Freescale is taking that route with the WaRP (Wearables Reference Platform, photo right) open-source community board designed from the ground up specifically for the wearables space. Robert Thompson, Freescale business development manager, recently spoke to EDN about design and sourcing issues in wearables and the strength of the maker community and an open-source approach for this segment. What follows are excerpts of that conversation.

EDN: There's been a lot of hype, but truly where are we with the wearables space?

Thompson: What we started seeing in the application processor space and also the microcontroller space is a lot of customers were already talking about wearables a couple of years ago. What was different about this market is that we saw customers in many different segments and markets that generally don't have much in common. What we've been trying to do for the last couple of years is understand what that means, what products will be successful, and what customers will want.

We started looking about a year and a half ago at filling the space and helping customers get to market with a wearable device by developing a reference design, which we call WaRP, the Wearables Reference Platform. That's getting to market now. It's been delayed, but we've learned a lot about the wearables supply chain and a lot of the challenges our potential customers will face.

We're looking at the wearables market in its next different definition. Freescale is a very broad company.

EDN: As a broad company, are you trying to pull together the interest from these different segments and markets?

Thompson: We're not trying to pull these markets together. One of the advantages we have is one of the broadest portfolios from microcontrollers through application processors range within the market.

When customers come and talk to us, they often ask if they should use this component or maybe that. What we try to do is understand what they are trying to develop, then look at our portfolio as a whole and suggest not only our parts that we think are most applicable, but also bring in the partners that we think can get the device to market.

The big challenge with wearables, even with the most simplistic devices like activity trackers, is finding the right parts in our portfolio and making sure we can bring in partners we worked with before and that we know have compatibility so that the customer can get to market as quickly as possible.

EDN: We've been talking about wearables for years now. Is there any technology that has evolved so that this is possible now?

Thompson: If we are honest, everything that is in wearable devices today was not developed for the wearables market. It's been borrowed from other markets, mostly the smartphone market. Most of the wearables on the market today are expanding from this mobile trend of small footprint, low power.

We're in the phase now where we are beginning to see devices pre-announced that will show you the earliest developments, mostly on the sensors side, that were specifically aimed at wearables. That's why we are seeing a lot of hit or miss in the wearables space — a lot of devices are taking what's available and adapting it to the wearables market.

Next year, we'll start seeing a lot of components — from the core processor all the way through to the memory to the communications module — specifically designed with wearables in mind. We'll see an evolution from the components standpoint in the ability to meet the needs of the wearables market.

EDN: Do you see a connection between the neighboring rise of IoT (Internet of Things) and/or the “maker movement” as a driver for wearables?

Thompson: To me, wearables are a subsect of IoT. If we take IoT at its simplest definition, it is the connecting of everything. Wearables are taking that concept and placing it on our bodies. It's the ability to collect data from what we are doing and how we are doing it, then analyzing that data and presenting it back.

[The maker movement] is one of the reasons we decided to make the WaRP open source from the beginning. When we looked at the wearables space, we saw the very fast iteration of projects. We saw many companies start projects, re-evaluate them, and start again in a different direction.

We thought that there was no way we, as one company, could keep up with the pace of innovation we were seeing. The way to do it, we thought, was to tap into the open-source community and make everything available. We don't want to go the traditional semiconductor company route of taking a reference design, making it available to only our customers through our sales people; we want to do the exact opposite and make it available to everybody.

When it's ready to launch in a couple of months, you'll be able to buy it for $149 and get schematics, the Gerbers, the design files, the complete bill of materials, and the software is based on Android. Makers can take it and run with it, and that's what we hope they will do.

EDN: Have we overcome the big design challenges of wearables: connectivity, battery life, miniaturization, and usability?

Thompson: No. I would add to that components sourcing, a big challenge for wearables. It goes back to my comments earlier that most of the wearables today have basically taken components designed for the smartphone world. The challenge with taking components from the smartphone supply chain is that the smartphone supply chain is extremely rationalized and concentrated. It's designed for large-volume products that have a lifecycle of 18 months.

Now, if you take wearables as being medical and industrial enterprise-like devices, you're talking about devices that companies hope will last two to three years. As we've seen, wearable devices are selling, but they are not selling in the hundreds of thousands of units.

If you take the maker use case and a maker comes up with a design based on components that are really from the smartphone world, he will find that he cannot buy those components even through distribution. If they are available, the price will be so high in the very small units he is looking to produce that the cost of the product will become prohibiting to customers.

I don't think wearables have overcome any of the challenges. That's why it's still a wide-open field.

To read the rest of the article, please visit EBN sister publication EDN.

1 comment on “Designing for Wearables: Tremendous Opportunity But Not Without Challenges

  1. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    September 25, 2014

    The complexity and speed of the wearable and IoT market makes it clear that deisigners are going to be looking for help, especially around designing for connectivity, battery life, small size and the rest of the items on a wearable must have list. I see more and more semiconductor makers and distributors stepping up with kits and other products. That's a good thing for the market. Do you think they should be doing more? Or will it be enough to enable the market?

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