Wrist radios have been staples in comic books and science fiction for decades, but it has been far easier for writers to conjure up a vision than for engineers to realize the technology—until now. If smartphones are now the ubiquitous embodiment of Star Trek's communicator, wearables like smartwatches, fitness bands, or even rings that turn your finger into a gesture controller, are next in line to bring the latest gadgetry technology to the masses.
Yet wearables aren't merely an evolutionary change to existing mobile devices. The physical dimensions and electrical requirements are so vastly different from smartphones that they constitute an entirely new hardware category. The disparity in physical size; fashion and comfort needs; battery capacity; and usage environment, where things like water and shock resistance are much more important, bring a new set of design requirements and constraints. Developers can't just scale existing smartphone designs and expect to have a usable smartwatch.
For example, compare two category-leading products: the Pebble Smartwatch and iPhone 5S, for the stark contrast in packaging density. The former's case is a mere 43 x 34mm or about one-fifth the surface area of an iPhone with its 4-inch screen. Within a 10mm thick package, Pebble's designers had to pack a 2.3-inch LED display and a single circuit board with memory, SoC controller, various sensors, Bluetooth chip, and battery. And all of this is on a double-sided circuit board where real estate for components and interconnects is at a premium and where buyers want the slimmest possible device profile.
A true wearable consumer device will be one where comfort, usability, and fashion drive the form and fit, and the electronics just fluidly fit in whatever form the designer wants. That’s a major challenge and opportunity for the electronics industry.
With technology reaching a crucial inflection point where many of the devices that we have all seen in science-fiction movies are becoming commercially viable, now the big questions facing the industry are—what do people really want to do with these devices and can these devices transition from novelty gadgets to be as omnipresent in our lives as traditional watches or mobile phones.
The big technology enablers for the wearable market includes: the explosion of low-cost solid state sensors; the maturity of low-energy/mid-data rate wireless solutions like Bluetooth smart; semiconductor packaging and process advancements that enable high-density memory and processing capability in very small footprint, flexible circuit boards; and a focused effort from software vendors like Apple and Google to extend the richness of iOS/Android app ecosystems into wearable devices with extensions like HealthKit and Android Wear.
These trends are helping companies to innovate with the form, fit, and function of wearables. There are many diverse use cases for wearable devices, and more are being invented and tested regularly to truly understand consumer adoption challenges. Some of the most popular use cases include:
Activity monitoring & feedback: Most fitness bands that do human activity, biometric and sleep cycle measurements; smart clothing that can provide biometric measurements and sensory feedback.
Monitoring, notification & simple control: Smartwatches that usually include most of the functionality of fitness bands but additionally act as a notification center for smartphones and provide a simpler way to interact with most common functions of the smartphone.
Medical or personal monitoring: Wearable devices that continuously monitor blood pressure, sugar, heart rate, etc. for real-time monitoring, feedback, and treatment compliance; includes devices meant to track well-being of the elderly, kids, and pets.
Recording and social engagement: Cameras like GoPro that are meant for action sports; or like Polaroid cube meant for recording and sharing your day-to-day adventures; or recording devices used for event or compliance tracking like those used with police or other service personal.
Productivity enhancement: Devices like Google Glass that can be used in various commercial applications where context-driven information on heads-up displays can enhance productivity, efficiency, and quality of workflow, like medical operations, machine diagnostics, and repairs.
Training: Sports monitors used in equipment like tennis rackets, skis, golf clubs, etc., which are able to track full movement and provide training feedback to the user.
Gaming, entertainment & virtual reality: Combination of virtual reality (VR) headsets and wearable apparel, which provides visual and tactile feedback for immersive experiences.
Overall, the wearables market is still in the early stages. The hype has set-in, but longer-term user acceptance and the evolution of products that will stick is still to be determined. The near-term challenge is not in building a device, but figuring out the right combination of functionality, ergonomics, and design that compels users to adopt and wear these products daily.
Unlike computers and mobile phones, wearable devices have a very strong cultural and geo-specific context. Wearable devices are meant to help and augment our own understanding of personal habits, social engagement, entertainment and fashion needs; all of these have very strong cultural component. A wearable device that’s popular and suits an American/European lifestyle may not be the right solution for a Chinese, Japanese, Indian, or Latin American lifestyle. There is a huge opportunity for companies and entrepreneurs in each region to invent and innovate in wearables for their own local market needs, and find the best use of global technologies for local wearable applications.