New technologies driving the growth of wearables

December 3, 2015 OpenSystems Media

The wearable device market is arguably seeing the fastest and most exciting growth across the entire electronics landscape. Just look at the changes for unit shipment forecasts presented by IDC throughout 2015. IDC’s Worldwide Quarterly Wearable Device Tracker published in March 2015 predicted a total volume of more than 125 million units by 2019. The September 2015 update from IDC revised the forecast to be above 175 million units[1]. Not to mention, the IDC report also indicates that from a form factor standpoint, wrist wear will remain dominant while new formats such as “smart jewelry” continue to emerge – which does doubly serve as a go-to gift idea for tech-loving married guys like me.

The expanding wearables market, while predominantly driven by consumers, will also include traditional industrial markets such as medical and military. So, in order to meet the requirements that these end markets demand, designers will need to also consider new and emerging technologies. Specifically, these include visual solutions comprised of displays and touchscreens, software, and wireless connectivity. Additionally, the designer will further need to consider secondary and tertiary implications such as infrastructure and services support to enable the overall user experience as wearables ultimately begin and end with the end user.

Data, data, how do I visualize thee, data?

The latest releases of smart watches provides a glimpse of the potential for “visualizing information and content” on a wearable device. The average size for a smart watch screen is between 32 mm and 40 mm (1.25″ and 1.6″).

The resolution range for the current smart watch offering goes from 320 x 320 to 360 x 290, depending on the shape of the display. Typical applications associated with a smart watch feature text, static pictures, and basic graphics. There are two primary display technologies used today for smart watches: active matrix organic light-emitting diode (AMOLED) and in-plane switching liquid crystal display (IPS LCD). That said, some enhanced specifications will certainly be expected to meet medical and military requirements.

The first consideration will be slightly larger screens to handle detailed graphics and images along with the potential for overlay applications such as augmented reality. Whether on military patrol or monitoring a patient, the wearer will want the ability to have clear visibility of a variety of information in rich detail. Displaying information on a screen that is around 3″ by 5″ with either 720p or 1080p high-definition resolution would certainly allow for such rich media and the ability to include streaming video.

Larger screens also open up the potential for multi-touch functionality, thereby allowing for more finger-controlled commands or image resizing. Another benefit of the larger, more sensitive touch space is the ability to remain responsive even when the wearer has gloves on. See, now Robocop is back in the game!

Display dimensions and functionality, however, will affect battery life, and as a result also factor in as a critical design consideration. Using solar collectors on the wearable or harvesting energy from the wearer’s movements are potential solutions.

Ensuring the wearable is able to withstand a rugged or harsh environment is another critical consideration when it comes to the display. Today’s smart watches are usually built to be splash-proof but not waterproof. Not only will wearables for medical and military applications need to be waterproof, but they will have to be sealed to protect against dust and exposure to chemicals, gases, and other contaminants found in a military operation, research lab, operating room, etc. The design will also need to account for extraordinary shock and/or vibration associated with such extreme use cases.

Other emerging display technologies that will benefit wearables in non-consumer environments like military and medical include flexible screens and high brightness displays. Flexible screens allow the device to more naturally conform to the wrist and lower forearm of the wearer. High brightness displays compensate for sunlight during daytime and can be adjusted for nighttime or dark environments if a lower light setting is needed. With the emergence of small, high-performance displays and enhanced touch capabilities, look for the use of wearables in non-consumer applications to grow significantly.

Software considerations

Similar to wearables in the consumer market, those used in markets such as medical and military must address security, user interface, and analytics from a software perspective. Some of these functions will be embedded within the wearable’s code, whereas others will be processed in the cloud in conjunction with the device.

In the case of security, user authentication as well as data protection and integrity are critical. Using fingerprint recognition in conjunction with the touch display provides a biometric security element that can be coupled with retinal scanning, passwords, or other available methods used to create a multi-factor authentication process. Securing the data transport between the device and the cloud is accomplished using standard technologies. Data protection and secure processing can efficiently take place in the cloud. That said, careful consideration must be given to ensure that patient information privacy compliance standards are met in the case of a medical application. For example, guarding against man-in-the-middle attacks.

Encryption is similarly important for military applications in order to keep classified data classified and to make sure that data cannot be intercepted or manipulated when transported between device and cloud. Wearable OEMs can (and most likely should) work with software design partners for assistance in these areas if they do not have the expertise in-house.

User interface is another important consideration. This is particularly important if the application being run on the wearable is also delivered on other devices such as a tablet or flat panel display. In this situation there is need for the application to include responsive web design. Responsive web design accounts for screen size, operating system, and environment (fixed or mobile) to format content to match the context. Consider one physician who is consulting over a patient in a conference room and viewing the patient’s information, while another physician in a remote setting is tending to the patient while viewing the same information on a wearable. This is just one example of why there is such great need need for consistency with displayed information. The issue of how the information is displayed is absolutely a top priority and responsive design is critical in addressing the requirement.

Analytics will almost always be processed in the cloud, or in an intelligent gateway where a “fog” computing environment exists. From a software design standpoint, the developer needs to be aware of the wearable’s entire ecosystem. Additionally, if the analytics drive any operational instructions delivered to the wearable, the developer will need to ensure there is sufficient processing capabilities and memory to execute the run-time instructions.

The good news for software developers is the existence of many development platforms available today. These platforms encompass and integrate the various elements of the software stack. In some cases, the software tools are ported to reference design hardware to help accelerate the design process. Additionally, there are third-party software specialists to augment the developer’s internal resources.

Connecting the data

Currently, low power, wide area networking (LPWAN) – which includes the long range WAN (LoRA) and SIGFOX protocols – and LTE-M are emerging as competing IoT transport standards over long distances. They both offer low-cost and broad coverage in conjunction with Wi-Fi, GPS, and traditional cellular broadband.

Consideration should be given to the volume of data and how frequently it’s transported. Also, one must think about the transmission power relative to the overall power budget of the device, and total cost of connectivity including components and data rates. For example, SIGFOX, which uses the ISM band, is available today but has limited coverage and supports relatively low data traffic rates. LTE-M, sometimes called 3.5G LTE, is not projected to be network ready until 2017 but offers greater coverage and can handle higher traffic volume. Clearly there is no one size fits all and developers should engage partners who can provide an unbiased assessment of which model fits best with their application.

Exciting emerging market: Bovine wearables

Most of the discussion up to this point has examined the rather sophisticated application of wearable technology for humans. That said, we would be remiss if we did not mention those applications of wearable technology that extend out to a variety of new and exciting applications such as livestock tracking and health monitoring.

Up until recently, a farmer, shepherd, zookeeper, or really any other animal caretaker had to track the location of their animals using a very sophisticated process: getting in a truck and looking for them. And while such activity likely provided the occasional “excuse” for farmers who wanted to stay out a bit longer to catch a ballgame, wearables, through the combination of the technologies mentioned (software, security, connectivity, low-power efficient processing, cloud, and sensing), may also serve to enable devices to greatly assist farmers with tracking their valuable commodity.

In fact, such technological aids may even serve to understand to-the-minute health considerations such as whether animals need to be milked or are ready to be bred. The only technology that really isn’t applicable quite yet are displays because, well, cows can’t read or interact with touchscreens. At least, not yet. (Though, that does give me an idea for a new software start-up, “Moosetta Stone.”)

There’s a lot to think about

The growth in the wearable devices market is significant and will occur in both consumer and non-consumer applications such as medical and military. The technologies that will play a pivotal role in this growth include visual solutions, software, and connectivity.

In addition to the technology considerations, wearable device OEMs will require additional support services. These services include design support for selecting the right display, integration support to affix touchscreens to the display, software development to augment internal capabilities, and partners to assist with the cloud related services.

Avnet Embedded is a proven partner with expertise across of all of these technologies and design support services. Additionally, Avnet Embedded has trusted relationships with leading technology innovators worldwide and can leverage them to create formidable ecosystems in order to support the wearable device OEM. Finally, Avnet Embedded support extends throughout the product life cycle including logistics, warranty, data plans, and call center services. Having a credible partner who is able to expedite time-to-market with the best solution for the business objective is the key to successfully harnessing new technologies in order to capitalize on the growing wearable device market.

Reference

[1] IDC Research, Inc. “Fueled by Growing Demand for Smart Wearables, IDC Forecasts Worldwide Wearable Shipments to Reach 173.4 Million by 2019.” http://www.idc.com/getdoc.jsp?containerId=prUS25903815

John Weber is Strategic Solutions Architect at Avnet.

John Weber, Avnet
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