The Wearables Wave Expands Today’s Mobile Experience

The range of applications in the wearables market appears to be limitless.

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By Andrew Frame and Bee Hayes-Thakore
There’s no question that the mobile experience is expanding. Today’s smartphones, all powerful computing devices, have made it possible for us to stay connected to the information that matters most to us, offering at-a-glance information in a compact, portable form for extended periods of time. Most of us are always within easy reach of our smartphones all day, every day.

While today’s smartphones already offer a rich feature set, this is just the beginning of what they could do. Now, we are seeing more innovation to make the smartphone become an even more useful tool — connecting to various, “almost always-on” gadgets exchanging health, activity, well-being and medical data, and then applying it meaningfully. Yes, these are wearable devices.

There has been increasing momentum since the start of 2013 around the transformation that wearable computing is bringing to smartphones, and for good reason: According to IHS Research, sports and fitness monitors, running and cycling computers, and other physical activity trackers will reach about 90 million unit shipments globally in 2016, up from approximately 40 million units in 2013. IHS predicts that at least 250 million units will ship over the next five years. In a related survey conducted by IHS last year, 62.3% of smartphone owners who exercise regularly expressed an interest in mobile health and fitness apps and fitness sensors.

One of the most interesting things about wearables is the broad range of applications in which they can be used, and that seems to be limitless. Depending on what the device is expected to do, like many applications that use processors, it is very important to choose the right processor for the right job.

At the heart of wearables
A recent quote from WIRED magazine’s January feature on wearable technology sums it well – “What Recon Instruments sells is the ability to see all the crucial data, and only the crucial data, at times when it would normally be locked away.” It is this pursuit of seamlessly and constantly collecting and aggregating data, and then offering it with recommendations to best use it, that sets apart this exciting new wave of wearable devices — that must all be designed at ultra-low power, with long battery life, all in a wearable compact form factor.

The ARM Cortex processor family is designed to offer the high efficiency, low operating power and low area profile needed for wearable devices. The list of ARM-based wearable devices is long, with partners offering the range and diversity of platforms available to build on today, and targeted to the performance, price and OS that is optimized for a variety of future applications.

  • Leading fitness devices such as the Nike+Fuelband, Fitbit Force, Jawbone, Shine, and Misfit – are all ARM-based processing solutions available today. In fact, there are 80+ wearable products currently shipping that are based on ARM technology.
  • The Kickstarter-funded Pebble Smartwatch, which is able to achieve a week of operation on a single charge supporting Bluetooth tethering to a smartphone, is also ARM-based.
  • Keen crowdfunding supporters are even funding Metawear – a $30 wearable, rapid prototyping chip based on an ARM SoC featuring both Bluetooth LE and sensors, with a 3-axis accelerometer and a temperature sensor – it measures only 17mm x 26mm!
  • We are also seeing the emergence of wearables such as Kiwi Move, replacing GUIs with more advanced interaction including gesture-control that is based on ARM technology.

Providing a platform for success
Battery life and quality of sensor data will be vital metrics of success, according to a recent report by Canalys. Sensor integration is a critical aspect for the success of wearable devices. Requirements are moving from simple monitoring to full interpretation of the devices state and situation, even for very basic wearables.

Having a solution with an extensive ecosystem of development and prototyping platforms, connectivity, sensors and sensor-integration options allows you to choose the right combination for your device. This is something that ARM provides via the Cortex-M ecosystem, which includes:

  • Hardware platforms for rapid prototyping such as the Freescale WaRP board
  • Software platforms for rapid prototyping such as the mbed development platform
  • Partners that provide state of the art sensor fusion algorithms for combining the data from different types of MEMS sensors, aggregate sensor drives and manipulate it for classification of the activity.
  • Partners that provide modules with sensors and MEMS
  • Partners that provide Bluetooth connectivity modules

So, as designers take these requirements into account, there are a number of possible trade-offs that must be made in order to make the next hit product including:

  • Battery capacity, which can affect form factor and overall power requirements
  • On-chip memory vs. external memory, which can affect overall PCB space, additional component cost and power requirements
  • On-chip RAM size, which can affect the amount of data storage before needing to upload to the smartphone application or cloud CPU speed/software complexity, which in turn influences the timeliness and accuracy of sensor data
  • PCB area, which can affect end product form factor
  • Timing of activation of sensor and connectivity

The correct combination of trade-offs enables the creation of a product that meets the needs of the market at the correct price point, in the right form factor.

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An ARM Cortex-M CPU-based solution in a basic wearable device

There is also a widely held perception that wearable SoC designs are complex due to the mixed signal aspect of the device. However, design tools have made huge strides in the past ten years to where both analogue and digital designers are able to create such devices that are production quality from the first revision. ARM is working with its EDA partners on solving these design challenges to create new classes of devices and bring them to market quickly.

The next-generation of wearables
The recent announcement of Android Wear, which starts with smart watches but incorporates fitness features, created a lot of excitement. Many ARM partners were part of the initial announcement and the software development kit is available for ARM based SoCs.

In addition to designing new chips that extend battery life, enhance data and device security, and feature the right processing cores and multi-standard connectivity solutions, the focus must also be on building open source standards, operating environments, and other ecosystem technologies to support these chips. This includes supporting ARM partners and the Linux community to help build the foundation for next-generation wearable devices and apps to grow, expanding the mobile experience.

Hear a webcast on Addressing MCU Mixed Signal Design Challenges.
This webcast presents the building blocks and design tools for creating mixed signal devices, dispelling the myth that they are hard to do.
Tune in to ARMflix videos. Hear ARM partners share their vision of the evolution of wearable devices.

Andrew Frame is senior marketing director at ARM. Bee Hayes-Thakore is product marketing manager at ARM.