In the Product Design & Development Brainstorm, we talk with industry leaders to get their perspective on issues critical to the design engineering marketplace.
In this column, we ask: What are some of the key technology trends that will shape the evolution of the wearables market?
Read more: Brainstorm: Wearables (Part 1)
Wearables and smartwatches are becoming increasingly powerful and have started to gain commercial traction. They are unique among consumer computing devices in that they are worn on the body. This has the great (and unique) potential to allow a user’s body, arms, and hands to be transformed into an expressive input and sensing platform.
For example, we debuted our work on “EM-Sense” this past November. It’s a technology that allows smartwatches to recognize what objects a user is touching (by sensing signals radiating up your arm). The video (bit.ly/EM-Sense) does a nice job of showing how this contextual knowledge can enrich our everyday routines.
To put this another way, today’s smartwatches are basically shrunk-down smartphones, with poor usability and few features that people couldn’t live without. Instead, we should be leveraging their unique position on the skin to make our bodies (and thus lives) computationally enhanced. So an arm wearing a smartwatch isn’t a worse smartphone, it’s a better arm. This is the real promise of wearable computing.
In the 1990s, we saw PC interfaces largely standardize around the “desktop metaphor,” with windows, icons, menus, mouse cursors, and so on. Mac, Windows, and Linux looked different, yet relied on a similar set of interaction conventions. We’re seeing the same thing happen today with smartphones: iOS and Android look different, yet have largely converged on a shared scheme of swipe-able grids of apps, lack of a true file system, integrated voice assistants, notification centers, etc.
However, smartwatches are still nascent, and have yet to standardize on a common interaction language. Even the hardware design is diverse: buttons vs. touch-only, round vs. rectangular screens, and a variety of accessory controls like Apple’s “digital crown.” I believe these interface designs will start to converge and cement over the next two years as wearables gain traction in the market.
The wearables market is very exciting. It's ripe for both innovation and great ideas, and contingent upon both.
The key technical areas for wearables are:
- New technologies for human input
- Low power connectivity standards
- Improvements in batteries and standards in power delivery
- Intelligent data processing on the wearable
- Low power heterogeneous processors
- Effective cloud integration
A useful and effective wearable must have an intuitive and "transparent" method to be controlled and to feed us with information. Exciting developments in this area include Google's Project Soli, which uses radar to allow gesture input while uncoupling our hands from the device and its screen. Technologies like this require processors with low-power, high-speed sensor interfaces, and can leverage on-chip DSPs. Cameras with intelligent gesture and depth detection are also great candidates here.
Wireless standards such as Bluetooth LE have allowed sensor pods to become ubiquitous. Other transports such as Wi-Fi or mesh or NFC can make sense for varied use-cases on the same device, and unifying technologies such as AllJoyn can help truly make the wearable part of the IoT.
As the number of devices we need to recharge grows, it becomes more important that charging is simple, quick, and standard. The standard USB charger has been key in removing the barrier of daily charging, but the days of plugging-in must end with wearables. Standardized wireless charging is key for the most power-hungry, but RF power harvesting for mote-based wearables will make them "wear-and-forget". Rechargeable wearables will need improved energy densities and flexible batteries with wider temperature capability; the 0°C to 60°C limits of lithium-based rechargeables will become limiting.
Wearables will be capable of collecting and forwarding unlimited quantities of data, but as this volume scales exponentially, it will become useless exabytes of noise without intelligent filtering and processing. Doing this at the sharp-end, at the wearable, will be vital. For example, wearable cameras with motion detection and sound energy detection can adaptively learn what's important to store-and-forward. Multi-core heterogeneous processors with DSP and image processors can use the cores most suited to the task and so optimize their power consumption.
Finally, tying this constellation of wearables and their hubs to the cloud needs effective and standard fabrics at the bottom side, where alliances such as AllSeen will be crucial. At the upper side, effective and innovative apps and bots for data mining will leverage AI techniques to make all that data both useful, and accessible.
Wearable electronics constitute the next chapter in the mobile computing revolution. With a host of devices ranging from smart eyewear and smart watches, to sensor-laden patches and chest straps, today’s wearables have enhanced connectivity and improved our understanding of our health and well-being. Although the market is poised to grow rapidly, the ability of existing wearables to capture high quality biometric data required to keep wearers engaged, is limited in part by form factor and wearability constraints, which restrict intimate coupling with the human body. These limitations may give rise to poor data accuracy, discomfort, and disengagement for users.
Wearables that incorporate sensors and electronics in flexible and stretchable configurations represent a powerful alternative, which could one day replace packaged electronics components found inside contemporary wearables. These flexible/stretchable electronics are mechanically imperceptible by virtue of their optimized electromechanical designs, which in turn, enhance comfort and reduce social stigmas associated with daily wear.
Representative examples of skin-coupled wearables include integrated biosensors/actuators (e.g. electrodes, pressure sensors, strain gauges, temperature sensors, accelerometers, gyroscopes, pulse sensors, galvanic skin response sensors, and light-emitting diodes) and associated communication/control circuitry, which manifest in the form of a temporary tattoo or thin Band-Aid. As manufacturing processes and supply chains mature for ultra-thin stretchable electronics, products that employ these technologies will become ubiquitous, in both medical and consumer markets.
Future growth of the wearables market is poised to transition from wrist-based and clip-on devices to more intimate form factors that merge with clothing, apparels, textiles and ultimately human skin. The unique form factors enabled by soft, conformal electronics provide opportunities for advanced wearable systems to improve compliance/engagement, data quality, and efficacy across both clinical and consumer health applications. Analytical modeling, field studies, and clinical trials have begun to validate the electro-mechanical and physical properties of these skin-coupled systems, and their associated sub-components.
These functionalities and system level configurations would constitute a triumph of miniaturization and comfort in this emerging era of wearable mobile computing. When coupled together with the ability to collect continuous streams of data and run query analytics, these bio-integrated systems may fundamentally change the doctor-patient relationship, and enable new opportunities to address our health risks preventatively upstream, without setting foot in a hospital.
Companies like Apple, Samsung, and Pebble are striving to create the wearable platform of the future with all-encompassing watches outfitted with development kits and an array of sensors. These devices have opened the door to a world of data to track and analyze, allowing consumers to quantify their lives. But they have their physical limitations.
A watch cannot track the heartbeat of a baby growing in its mother’s belly, or the posture of a dancer struggling to perfect their form. Sensors will invariably need to move outside of a watch-like device in order to capture the new types of data we desire. As a result, the “wearables” category will break down into a diverse range of consumer devices that are sported for specific use-cases.
Moore’s law has cleared the way for this type of diversification – sensors are increasingly cheaper, smaller, and easier to make. In the future, smart watches may be as common as smartphones, but consumers will also own a collection of activity-specific devices – deciding on a tracker to wear will be like choosing which outfit to wear for the day. In the past, with the higher price of sensors and microprocessors, it only made economic sense to develop a product with a massive target audience. Creating a $250 device to monitor your golf swing simply wouldn’t sell.
Today, companies have the flexibility to create hardware products at a far lower cost, meaning design will be critical as consumers contemplate between competitively priced trackers. The companies who will succeed in the evolution of the wearables market won’t necessarily be those who manage to make one device with many functionalities, but those that create one platform that allows consumers to manage the data streaming from their various trackers.