Wearable tech: Are we nearly there yet?

Wearable tech: Are we nearly there yet?
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We’ve seen wearable technology accelerate fast but with every year that passes we’re promised that this year will be ‘the’ year for wearable tech and yet we still seem to be stuck in what appears to be, an insurmountable development curve. Wearable connected devices have been hitting the shelves but not all have seen great success.
By Rich Pell

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With McKinsey Global and Cisco both predicting that the IoT will generate over $10 trillion in the next decade, there is huge revenue potential for wearables but what are designers and developers missing – what are the final barriers that we need to break through?

At Farnell element14, we believe that there are a number of challenges that need to be overcome for wearables to achieve widespread adoption: engineers need to develop products that are affordable, and overcome the technical challenges that limit their usefulness.

Will wearables ever be more than a luxury?
For wearables to be a really attractive package, they have to be affordable. Many consumers still feel that a wearable device is a luxury and not a necessity but design engineers need not worry.

Mobile phones faced exactly the same hurdle in the 1980’s and now analysts forecast that by 2019 the world will see over 5 billion mobile phone users. For the majority of consumers, price will always be a deciding factor for purchasing a wearable device. The 2016 Gartner Personal Technologies Study surveyed 9,592 people and the response heavily indicated that wearable devices are too expensive based on their perceived usefulness.

Gartner believes that wearable providers that do not have a strong brand name will find it more difficult to grow market share, competing directly with popular brands. Instead, they should accept lower margins and provide an alternative that is priced significantly lower than top brands, but still has good quality for price-sensitive consumers.

As with any new technology, prices rarely remain high, especially in sectors where competition is so high as with wearable technology. From a design and production perspective, costs also decrease as global distributors such as Farnell element14 offer broad line cards and design services to support designers and help to streamline the design through to production experience.


As hinted by the Gartner study, some consumers are yet to feel the need to invest in an item of wearable technology. Angela McIntyre, research director at Gartner explains, “The abandonment rate [of wearables] is quite high relative to the usage rate. To offer a compelling enough value proposition, the uses for wearable devices need to be distinct from what smartphones typically provide.”

“Wearables makers need to engage users with incentives and gamification. The greatest hurdle for fitness tracker and smartwatch providers to overcome is the consumer perception that the devices do not offer a compelling enough value proposition.”

This sends a clear message that in such a crowded market there is not enough product differentiation; the wrist is becoming the most sought after wearable real estate.

One segment of the wearables market that has performed relatively well is fitness tracking. In recent times, however, we have seen a number of media stories about high abandonment rates of fitness trackers including FitBit, JawboneUP and Nike’s FuelBand.

These brands have responded with new product releases and in some cases mergers and tactical acquisitions to help take brands in a new direction. Typically, these brands are moving into the health market, which could be a positive step as consumers see their health as important and will potentially see a health device as more of a necessity.

So it would seem that offering unique features is one way of differentiating and overcoming the perception that wearable products are not worth their price. Wes Henderek, an analyst and director of connected intelligence for The NPD Group heeds a warning for smart watch designers saying, “There’s this grey area in the middle where these companies are going to struggle, if they try and target too large of a segment and add too many features, they become a lesser smartwatch and they’re not targeting enough of a niche.”

Focusing on valuable and unique niche features such as health or personal safety and security could be the way forward for wearable technology designers.

Forget standards, it’s all about interoperability
A wearable is of little use if it cannot connect to allow the data it collects to be analysed. In the general IoT landscape it’s easy to see how design engineers can be stuck for choice when it comes to choosing which protocol or operating system to use, as on the surface there are so many, with WiFi pioneer Cees Links sharing that, “The sheer number of possible new standards initiatives can be confusing and is unnecessarily fragmenting the IoT industry.”

Focusing on wearable technology specifically, most designers opt to connect to a cell phone, typically using ANT, a proprietary but open source protocol, for ultra-low power, short-range wireless technology for sensor networks using 2.4-GHz ISM. ANT is ideal for wearable tech as it can be configured to spend long periods of time in low power or sleep mode and wake briefly to communicate data. With ANT and similar protocols offering key functionality for wearable devices why is there still an issue?


Although most wearables tether to a cell phone, there is increasing consumer resistance to the need to carry their phone when they are using a wearable. Simply adding a cellular connection to a smart watch or other device to replace the separate phone is rarely a good solution due to the impact on size and battery life.

With the number of connected devices increasing exponentially, the number of necessary connection points naturally increases, ultimately expanding the overall density of the network. Although this offers the potential for alternative connection technologies, existing UHF standards such as Wireless HD and WiGig are not appropriate as they were not designed to support such a huge array of connections.

Engineers typically respond to the challenge of eliminating tethering by designing in Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connectivity as integral components for wearable devices. However, even when using low power connectivity such as BLE, this constant need to remain connected has a huge impact on power consumption, which is our next barrier.

Who’s got the power?
With Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connectivity coming as standard on the majority of wearable devices today, this constant connectivity increases power consumption. End users feel duty bound to own the latest product and the more they do so, the more power is needed.

With battery technology failing to keep pace with power requirements, and consumers demanding smaller, sleeker and more attractive wearables, it’s not possible to simply use a larger battery. Design engineers have understood this challenge and have turned to wireless charging for a solution.

Nikola Tesla first demonstrated wireless power transmission in 1891, when he succeeded in lighting electric lamps without wires. It took more than a century before this technology became more mainstream but in recent years it has emerged onto the consumer electronics market with the likes of supermarkets and coffee houses offering charging stations and retailers offering wireless charging kits for the home or office.

Aside from the obvious benefit of removing the need for charging cables, wireless charging has the benefit of being more durable as well as and more eco-friendly through the elimination of electronic waste and energy transfer is non-radiative.

However, even with these benefits there are some disadvantages to wireless charging. It can be more expensive, less efficient and slower than traditional wired charging, although newer approaches aim to reduce transfer losses and improve speed through the use of ultra-thin coils and higher frequencies.

Recognising the need for improved solutions which would positively impact adoption of wearable devices, consumer electronics companies, as well as manufacturers from the semiconductor, mobile services, automotive, furniture, software and others industries, have joined the drive to improve wireless charging. As with many other new technologies, however, there are competing approaches to wireless charging.

Currently there are three organisations that are competing to standardise wireless charging technologies: The Wireless Power Consortium (WPC) with its Qi standard, the Power Matters Alliance (PMA) and the Alliance for Wireless Power (A4WP), presenting product developers with a dilemma of which standard to choose.


How can we address data privacy?
Although these devices are small, wearables hold and facilitate communication of a vast amount of very personal data. With so much data sharing between devices and the cloud or servers, security breaches are a huge concern to both consumers and brands.

As the connected world expands, increased data privacy legislation could be on its way as countries across the globe pass new laws to keep up with the growth of connected technologies. According to Deloitte, there were approximately 20 privacy laws globally in the 1990s and today there are more than 100.

The good news is that there are already a number of trusted vendors who can help mitigate the risk of security problems along with proven technologies like end-to-end encryption and token-based authentication that are suited for IoT applications. While software security is the focus of a lot of attention, embedded security is also an important consideration for design engineers. The use of development boards such as the WaRP7 that includes a built in NXP processor, makes designing with embedded security in mind incredibly straightforward.

The WaRP7 rev2.0 development board.

So, are we nearly there yet?
Whilst wearable technology has come a long way in recent years, the industry still needs to undertake significant development, if mainstream consumer adoption is to become a reality.

The IoT is a busy place and designers do face some tough challenges in order to meet consumer demands and allay fears, but the tools and the support for designers are available through strategic partners who can offer the right resources.

About the author:
Randy Scasny, element14 community, Premier Farnell – www.element14.com

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