Wearing My Computer

The only question is what it will look like. So far, the smart phone still looks like the device to beat.

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By Frank Ferro
I have been in a friendly debate with my colleagues (to remain nameless) for some time now about the future of ‘wearable devices.’ The most recent examples are the new Google glasses and the latest incarnation of the smart watch. I’m not a fan of either. I am trying to keep an open mind, however, because my natural inclination is not to overtly wear electronics. I could never clip a cell phone to my belt, and I only wear a Bluetooth headset in the car or when I’m alone in my office.

My concern about these particular devices is that they feel forced on the consumer. I understand that products need to be test marketed, but I really don’t see the use case for either of these products that would cause widespread adoption by consumers. For example, not everyone wears glasses, and if you don’t count cool sunglasses, most of us don’t want to wear them. In the case of the smart watch, many people—young people in particular—already have given up wearing watches because they use their phone. Plus do we really want to worry about charging our phone, watch and glasses all the time? I already have too many charging cords!

To be fair, I understand what is driving the need for these types of devices. According to a recent Internet Trend presentation (Mary Meeker and Liang Wu, KPCB, May 2013), the data show that users reach for their smartphone about 150 times per day. Unfortunately, this is a very believable number. I am guilty as anyone, although my smartphone use pattern does not seem to fit the data in the chart below because I mostly check email and access the Web. Clearly, reducing the number of times you have to turn on the large phone display will save battery life, and there is some level of convenience gained by not constantly needing to reach for the phone.

Now don’t get me wrong, there are some interesting wearable devices coming on the market and I am sure many more will continue to appear. A good example is the Fitbit Flex Wristband used for fitness training and/or weight loss. Devices like these are becoming popular because they have a specific use, and work with your smartphone so the user interface is comfortable for the consumer.

The concern about the success of these wearable devices is not just an exercise in being right, but like most IP and semiconductor manufacturers we are looking for devices that will drive the next wave of semiconductor products. The current state of sensor technology is allowing for an increase in the number of sensors per device. The Samsung Galaxy S4 is a good example with nine sensors on the phone including gesture, proximity, gyro, accelerometer, geomagnetic, temperature/humidity, barometer, hall, and RGB light sensors. I understand that most of us don’t wear our smartphone, but this is a good platform to show how all this sensor data is changing the way our electronic devices interact with the physical world around us.

In a smartphone there is plenty of processing power to analyze all this sensor data, but as we move to smaller wearable devices, the MCUs needed to process this ‘fusion’ of sensors are increasing in complexity. The following chart from Semico Research shows the growing need for 16- and 32-bit MCUs to work in conjunction with MEMS based sensors. As the chart shows, 16- and 32-bit MCUs will account for more than one-third of the processors embedded with MEMS sensors next year.

From an SoC perspective, sensor fusion is driving up processor complexity and will fuel (no pun intended) many of the new design starts by distributing the load of integrating real world data with our wearable everywhere computing device. Although I may be skeptical about the use models and success of some of these early wearable devices, there is no question that they will shape the future of consumer electronics. I continue to debate my colleagues on the timing and practicality of wearable consumer electronics, but I know in the end, I will be wearing my computer. The real question is what will it look like and when.

—Frank Ferro is the director of product marketing at Sonics, Inc.