Processor IP Enabling The Wearable Trend

Wearable technology could become as large over the next decade as the mobile market is today.

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Wearable technology is one of the fastest growing market segments. It is expected to be the next big thing in the field of computing and could, over the next decade, become as large as the mobile market is today. Its growth will depend on innovative devices providing a better user experience to their non-wearable alternatives, as well as broad availability of these products backed by a supportive and cohesive ecosystem.

Smart Innovation
Today, the wearable market includes a variety of products from smart bracelets and watches to smart glasses, smart rings and even smart textiles, where sensors move away from hard electronics and into the fabric of our daily lives. The key word here is smart. In order to qualify as a wearable, the device must feature both wireless connectivity and independent processing capability.

Even though it may appear to be a niche market when compared to the global prevalence of smartphones, the latest research suggests that penetration levels will reach 48% in 4 years, and in 10 years the wearable market will be worth over $70 billion. Wearables are designed to track our health and mood, ease communication and provide a more natural form of connectivity to the digital world. Equipped with sensors to record our fitness and activity levels and cameras for recording and sharing our activities, they enhance the user’s experience of day-to-day life.

How the Market Evolved
Since computers were first created they have become more personal, shrinking from massive supercomputers such as the ENIAC that filled a whole room back in 1956, down to personal computers such as the Apple II in the 1970s, to widespread adoption of mobile phones in the 1990s, and now the wearable trend launched in 2010.

This was enabled by technology becoming smaller, faster, cheaper, more powerful, and more energy efficient with each decade. This can be exemplified by Freescale’s latest Kinetis KL03, one of the smallest 32-bit MCUs currently on the market and ideally targeted at the wearable/IoT space. Based on the ARM® Cortex®-M0+ processor at 48MHz with 32KB Flash, 8KB boot ROM, 2KB RAM. It has a 35µA/MHz low-power active mode with 1µA sleep mode. Currently it is used mainly in thermostats and light bulbs – and is basically invisible!

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Today’s basic wearable tends to use an ARM processor and may have a simple LCD or E–ink screen. It links to the user’s smartphone and runs a simple RTOS. The always-on, always-connected processor interfaces with sensors and RF links and implements the sensor fusion platform, which combines data points from multiple sensors to yield the best estimate of the overall state of the system/person being observed. The sensor hub platform can enable contextual awareness tracking, even when the application and GPU processor are on standby.

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As wearable device smart capabilities evolve and become more contextually aware, and the Internet of Things (IoT) advances with the wearable trend, those devices with the capability of connecting to the cloud could soon be in possession of supercomputing capabilities. Context enriched services will use information gathered by these devices to predict immediate and future needs; proactively offering more sophisticated, situation-aware, usable functions and experiences.

At the high-end, wearable system-on-chips (SoCs) will include higher performance cores commonly seen in smartphones today. They will be supplemented by a multimedia subsystem most likely running a version of Android OS, although alternative operating systems such as Tizen are also gaining momentum. Some devices on the market are already ‘stand-alone’ and are able to connect directly to cloud services – something which will inevitably become more popular. Enabling this feature will be solutions such as software, end-to-end software that brings IP and web services to wearable devices by combining embedded client software with a scalable management and web application platform.

Addressing Security
The success of these features will inevitably depend on the ability to authenticate and protect personal data. Smart, personal, wearable devices could eliminate the headache of remembering passwords by authenticating users based on unique body data. These devices could in the near future replace your wallet, house keys, car keys, etc. However, they must be enabled by solutions which provide system-wide approaches to security for a wide-array of client and server computing platforms.

The User Experience
The user interface will be a key differentiator for wearable technology with a screen. As devices become more personal, they must also be more intuitive and natural to interact with. A smooth user interface with the capability to deliver high-quality graphics without breaking minimal battery resources is a must-have feature. In addition, wearables with infotainment features will be required to deliver a comparable gaming and media consumption experience to smartphones. Graphics processing technology that is cost-optimized, and also energy and bandwidth efficient will meet this need, such as GPUs. These, together with the CPUs mentioned above, provide designers with a complete solution to target any price / performance point across the wearable segment, especially when combined with an overall focus on system-wide power efficiency.

Fulfilling the desired features of all these new wearable products – from the prediction and tracking of activity in smart bracelets, to the enablement of fabric sensors fusion platforms, and the control of displays in fashion – technology is enabling this exciting future.