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Smart connectivity for the era of wearables

13 Apr 2015  | Samir Vasavda

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Heart rate, calories burned, number of hours of sleep, number of steps taken. If you are an engineer, a gadget lover or a data-driven person who wants to live a healthy life, you may already be using a wearable device to track your activity level.

You have probably heard the news about a large social media company paying $2 billion to buy an augmented reality company and a major chip manufacturer spending more than $100 million to buy another start-up that makes a watch that tracks your heart rate, speed, sleep, and other parameters. A search engine company is developing smart eyewear, which is already in the hands of many developers. Many smartphone makers have developed and shipped or are about to ship smart watches.

Get ready for the wearables onslaught.


The era of smart wearables is coming
The world of technology is going through another transformation. We went from mainframes to desktop PCs in about two decades, from desktops to laptop PCs in a decade or so, and from laptops to smartphones and tablets in less than a decade. Another revolution is brewing, and it will most likely take less than a decade to happen: smart wearables that are always connected.

Connectivity solutions will enable the customer to make wearables happen. Let's talk about external connectivity for power and data. Standard connectors may not fit into wearables due to size, aesthetics and technology. Eyewear needs to be thin, lightweight and aesthetically pleasing. A watch or any other wearable often must meet the same criteria. From a technology standpoint, customers want hermetically sealed devices so they can perform well under water or can resist sweat, dust and other foreign objects. To make this feasible, users want devices with no holes or minimum openings. Contactless solutions can address these issues.

Real estate is also a huge challenge. Eyewear or any other wearables are designed with minimum space for other non-essential functions.

To address these challenges, key connectivity industry players are designing solutions for wireless power-charging and contactless data transmission.


Wireless power
Technology experts are seeing a trend of "increased sensing." There will either be more functionality in the same space or the same functionality in a smaller form factor. Thus, providing power is a huge challenge, as well as an opportunity.

Wireless power is based on resonant inductive coupling. This point has encouraged the creation of multiple standards consortia. A consortium called Wireless Power Consortium (WPC) is working on a standard that can be applied to wearables for wireless power called Qi (taken from Chinese word for natural energy and pronounced "Chi") standard. Another consortium called Alliance for Wireless Power and Power Manage Alliance (A4WP) now has joined with Power Matter Alliance (PMA).

There are two main hurdles to overcome in wireless charging. The first is charging from a distance where devices are not tightly coupled. Therefore, the goal is to achieve spatial freedom. The second challenge is the design of the coil (inductor or antenna) and how to make it fit inside the tiny and complex-shaped devices.

A combination of better battery technologies (flexible, thinner, lighter, faster) and power "harvesting" whether it is using solar, mechanical movement, body heat or other means is being looked at by start-ups and established companies in Silicon Valley, Silicon Alley, and other places around the world.

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