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Supply Chain Lacks a Common Standard for Wearables

Wearables are expected to play an integral role in the Internet of Things (IoT), but before they do that, they must able to communicate with thousands and possibly millions of different devices.

A wristband that tracks blood pressure, skin temperature, and breathing rates, for example, might switch on the front porch lights and set the thermostat of your house as you pull into the driveway. The same wearable device might also detect that your blood pressure readings have been higher than usual during the past 48 hours and it sends an alert to your doctor.

While the scenario might seem a bit pie-in-the-sky, the technology for these applications already exists—and the commercial potential is huge. According to analyst firm Mordor Intelligence, wearable medical device revenues alone are expected to explode from $2.8 billion in 2014 to $8.3 billion in 2019.

However, before wearables reach their potential, OEMs and their suppliers have things to do to get the supply chain ready.

A stumbling block to wearables' widespread adoption is a lack of common standards, which would allow wearables to readily and seamlessly interact with each other and the many different device types that will eventually exist in the IoT universe.

“The obvious statement is that standards will have to be there,” Clive Longbottom, an analyst for Quocirca, told EBN. “The next obvious statement is just who is going to drive these standards and how strongly would they be adopted, anyway? “

The rise of a common standard

On a chip level, Bluetooth and ZigBee makers will obviously need to add command stacks to their devices in order to make wearables interoperable, but for the time being, no one knows what those command stacks will be. This is something “chipmakers need to be looking at,” but suppliers and OEMs are hesitating, said Tilo Borchardt, head of projects for medical wearable OEM Getemed.  “A lot of cost and development will be involved, but for the time being, it really is wait and see,” Borchardt said. “The chipmakers are waiting to see what they need to develop.”

A major headwind against the adoption of common standards for wearables in the industry is the reluctance of OEMs and suppliers themselves. Their value add is currently derived from proprietary systems and often have little incentive to adopt common standards for components that their competitors also make.

“From the manufacturer's perspective, interoperability is not always good since your product can be replaced more easily,” said Getemed.

But not all wearable players are standing still. In the medical device sector, Continua, a non-profit group, said it has 200 member companies around the world that are collectively seeking to create industry standards for interoperable connected health devices, which largely consist of wearables.  But while Continua represents a “good point starting point,” few companies have adopted its interoperability standards for wearable devices and they are limited to specific medical devices, Borchardt said.

Eventually, the IEE will need to get involved, said Longbottom. “The only group that would have any capability to start laying down standards would be the IEEE, so that wearables, systems, and downstream things (such as medical equipment dependent on data coming in from medical wearables) can act in a truly high-fidelity manner,” said Longbottom.

The status quo

In the near term, high-end wearables with API and connectors will largely only be interoperable with other proprietary devices, such as the iWatch.  Other wearables will be made in such a way so that they can only interoperate with other de facto devices, such as iPhones and Android devices, “but this does not mean that they will be 'standardized,'” Longbottom said.

“We may end up with the need for a 'Babel Fish,' hubs that can take data from one device and normalize it so that other devices can better use it,” Longbottom said. “As these devices would be at the center of thousands (or even millions) of other devices, then they could offer a higher level of intelligence that would allow them to operate as data hubs.”

However, professional-grade wearables will eventually be forced to meet common specs, which should thus prompt consumer grade wearable makers to make their devices interoperable as well. When lives depend on wearables functioning and interacting with a connected environment, wearable makers will thus have no choice but to adopt common standards.

“For consumer-grade wearables, it really isn't that important if standards do come through right away or not,” Longbottom said. “But for enterprise-grade wearables, such as for augmented reality applications, robotic systems, true medical wearables, etc., then the need for standards is too high to not address the issue as soon as possible.”

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