At the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) this week, flocks of unfamiliar vendors will be trotting out wearable devices: wristwatches, shoes, headbands, goggles, Dick Tracy cufflinks… you name it.
What no one knows is whether any of these wearables will turn out to be manufacturable in the foreseeable future, let alone become the hottest new gadget to take the world by storm.
Further, today's allegedly wearable devices might bear no resemblance to the wearable devices of 2015.
Robert Thompson, Freescale Semiconductor's i.MX development manager, observed that it's not unusual to find wearable device developers canceling their initial product plans within three months into development. They tear up the initial idea, redefine the product all over again, add or delete features (scale up or down the product concept), and come up with something entirely different.
The cautionary message is that the wearable device market is still uncharted territory for everyone — incumbents and nonbranded OEMs included. Everyone's still scrambling for a winning formula and a definition of wearable devices.
Thompson nonetheless stresses that the wearable market is not a question of if , but a matter of when .
Indeed, in the age of the Internet of Things (IoT), a popular belief is that every object, or every human with a wearable device, will eventually become an end node of the IoT.
However, no one actually has a firm grip on how a truly popular wearable device might look, what its killer feature might be, whose (connectivity, sensor, power, and software) technology it should incorporate, and how units should be sold to which market.
With all this uncertainty, Freescale sees an opportunity in enabling a yet-to-be-defined wearable market. The company is rolling out at CES this week what it calls the industry's first reference design for wearable devices — a platform flexible enough for a host of applications ranging from fitness and healthcare to infotainment.
Between Raspberry Pi and Qualcomm's Toq
On one end of the spectrum, wearable device developers can find such boards as the Raspberry Pi and Arduino — aimed at the maker and student communities. The boards can help these users quickly build wearable prototypes of their own.
On the other end of the spectrum, wearable device developers see the Toq smartwatch, which Qualcomm plans to manufacture. The wireless chip giant's long-term intention, however, is to use Toq as a platform, showing Tier 1 customers the infinite potential of wearable devices.
Freescale positions its wearable reference platform, called WaRP, in the middle of that spectrum. The company's reference design is not tied to one form factor such as Qualcomm's Toq smartwatch. It offers a much broader, more scalable solution than Raspberry Pi or Arduino, Thompson explained.
Unlike a new generation of smartphone OEMs in the emerging market, which know exactly what their next smartphone models should look like (e.g., Samsung's Galaxy S III or an Apple iPhone S5 look-alike), most wearable device developers remain clueless.
The first pitfall is product definition.
Is this a fitness product? Should it be a home healthcare device or a medical device? Is it supposed to be a headless device, or should it be a device with a graphical user interface? Which wireless technology should it be using? What's the usage model? What about battery life?
Most people in the wearable device development business tend to have only “a vague idea” of the product they're developing, according to Thompson.
Inevitably, that uncertainty triggers pitfall No. 2: product development delay.
When the prototype turns out to be destined for another round of product redefinition and redesign cycle, developers — suddenly with little time to spare — must make changes, pronto.
They need a broad range of wearable building blocks (sensors, software, connectivity, etc.), from which they can pick and choose what they need to scale up or scale down the device.
The third pitfall comes when a prototype must go into production: the supply chain.
Raspberry Pi and Arduino work great for prototyping, but neither can help developers source CPUs or any other chips they need, in volume, from a silicon supplier or distributor. Meanwhile, even if developers are interested in Qualcomm's Toq, chances are that Qualcomm isn't interested in doing business with newcomers, who tend to be small fish. Its target is Tier 1 OEMs.
Freescale's wearable reference platform, on the other hand, will ensure that all the necessary components are available to developers through distributors, said Thompson.
Freescale claims that its WaRP platform offers three key features, namely, a flexible form factor, extended battery life, and expandable architecture.
The platform comes with two boards. The main board is built on Freescale's i.MX 6SoloLite ARM Cortex-A9 apps processor as the core processing unit. A daughter card, which can be replaced as needed, offers a hub sensor, wireless charging, and motion sensing pedometer.
Developers can change the main board daughter-card configuration, depending on the device, said Thompson. Freescale also hopes an open-source community will start developing a variety of daughter cards to address a number of different wearable applications.
The wearable reference platform kit, consisting of the main board, a daughter card, an LCD display battery, and a micro USB cable, will become available in the second quarter of 2014.
A nonprofit community-based organization, www.WaRPboard.org, will provide service and support for the wearables reference platform, according to Thompson. The solution's hardware and software will be open-sourced and community driven. No closed development tools or licensing fees are required when used in conjunction with open-source resources.
This article originally appeared in EBN's sister publication EE Times .