Enabling Wearable Electronics In The Internet of Things (IoT) Era

Two of the biggest challenges for wearables are the thick form factor and the lack of adequate battery life.

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As part of its growth focus for Applied Materials, the Office of the CTO (Chief Technology Officer) aims to do the following:

  • Identify, incubate and commercialize growth opportunities in new and adjacent markets
  • Build a culture of open innovation at Applied Materials
  • Address market inflections and high value problems through differentiated solutions
  • Shape the future of our growth markets worldwide

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The Internet-of-Things (IoT), the concept of connecting physical objects to each other and to the internet through sensors within or attached to the objects, is a key market inflection that is opening up new opportunities and ways of obtaining information. Cisco Systems estimates there will be 50 billion connected devices by 2020—creating a tidal wave of data! Wearable Computing or “wearables” is a small but rapidly growing segment within the IoT space and is one of the potential killer applications that could fuel IoT.

Last year was significant for wearables. Google began shipping its Glasswearable computing device in early 2013, Pebble Technology reported receiving 275,000 orders for its smart watch by mid-year, and the Samsung Galaxy Gear and Qualcomm Toq watches were also released. In 2014, CES, the largest consumer electronics show, kicked-off with a huge emphasis on wearables. Several products were introduced at the show by Panasonic, LG and others. On the chip side, Intel introduced the Intel® Edison development board, a miniature computer in the form factor of an SD card and built on a low-power 22nm Quark processor. The Edison board is targeted at IoT applications, validating the semiconductor industry’s commitment to wearable computing and related devices.

At the recent Wearable Technologies conference in Munich, analysts from ABI Research reported that 50 million wearable units, including activity monitors and smart watches, were shipped in 2013. The firm stated that approximately 90 million units are forecast to ship this year – a dramatic 80% year-over-year increase, which is just the beginning of a projected sustained growth cycle for this segment of consumer electronics. Several Applied Materials customers showcased products that form the ecosystem of the wearables industry at the conference, including memory, low power microprocessors, Bluetooth® chips and MEMS sensors. Applied Materials and the Office of the CTO are contributing to the growth of the wearables market inflection through differentiated solutions.

One of the reasons wearables are expected to become mainstream is the rapid reduction in manufacturing costs. This is where Applied Materials and our expertise in precision materials engineering comes in and plays an important role. We have constantly innovated and worked closely with memory, microprocessor and MEMS customers to deliver differentiated equipment that helps accelerate their product introductions and enable rapid reductions in cost structures.

One key part of the wearables ecosystem that is still in need of new innovations is the battery. Two of the biggest challenges to overcome are the thick form factor due to battery size, and the lack of adequate battery life, thus requiring frequent recharging.

At the same Wearable Technologies conference, Applied’s Leo Kwak, Distinguished Member of Technical Staff, Office of the CTO, gave a presentation on solid state thin film batteries for wearable products. Kwak’s presentation focused on Applied’s work in solid state thin film battery technology, which aims to help solve those two biggest challenges. Applied’s technology allows wearable products to either be thinner or to pack more battery capacity in the same space, thereby increasing battery life.

There were numerous other products introduced at this conference including prescription glasses for Google Glass by Rochester Optical and my favorite, a touchless Gesture Interface by Microchip Technology, which replaces the need for a clicker to advance presentation slides with a gesture-controlled interface.

I’m excited about all the cool functionalities wearables will make possible in 2014 and beyond. Wearables are clearly taking off and the year has only just begun! Let me know your thoughts on wearables and some of the cool devices you’ve seen in the market