BROWSE BY TECHNOLOGY



RTC SUPPLEMENTS


SMALL FORM FACTOR FORUM

All I Want for Christmas

BY COLIN MCCRACKIN

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Fully decked out from head to toe. No, it’s not Fashion Week. Call it what you want – wearable tech, smart garments, e-textiles, whatever - it’s more than just a trip to the mall for the holiday shopping season. It is yet another “$20 billion by 2020” market. Or is it merely the same market research outfit that brings the same report from industry to industry? If the shoe fits, wear it.

Once again, it looks like Apple will get credit for reviving a product category in which others floundered for many years. At the very least, they will take the high road in the smart wristwatch category and merely “watch” all the others carve out slices of the low price fitness pie. From bar brawls over Google goggles all the way to textiles sending text messages, it’s clear that our society has a one-way ticket to somewhere.

How does the wearable tech industry intersect with embedded technology? It appears that the mature Micro Electro Mechanical Systems (MEMS) and Micro Systems Technology (MST) industry is poised to get pulled into this space in a big way. And MEMS / MST already did meet its $ billion market growth projections. Just imagine the ways to weave microsensors, accelerometers, actuators, transducers, gyroscopes, microphones, energy harvesting components, GPS receivers, hygrometers, and temperature sensors into fabrics. In this case, “fabrics” are not high-speed serial or optical backplanes or network topologies, but the shirts on our backs.

What do we do with the sensor data collected? This is where our friend the embedded hyper-coder comes in. She or he cranks out 10,000 lines of code that runs on a die the size of a pin head with embedded SRAM and Flash. Enjoy watching the flex circuits bulge while pumping iron in the gym, with the security of knowing you are forever tethered to the cloud. Your doctor and loved ones monitor your EGC, heart rate, respiratory and glucose vitals remotely with their smart phone apps. Now that’s “connected”. And personal, without being too personal.

Transmitters draw gobs of power. But where very low data rates are involved, amplifiers can operate at a very low duty cycle, off most of the time until needed. In fact, why not operate the embedded processor this way too? Leave just enough running to detect a wake event, then power on the system briefly until the processing and networking tasks complete. Wait, this sounds like what a PC does. That’s where the resemblance ends, as a microcontroller is much better suited to meet the size, weight, power, cost and timing budgets. Ever try jogging with a computer or tablet? Distributed and purpose-built systems are the only way forward. Wearable tech is no place for Big Data, Big OS, or Big BIOS. Leave that for the cloud and your desktop. Let’s use uA / MHz (microamps per megahertz) as our unit of measure for these embedded systems.

Security will play an important role with wearables, as with IoT edge nodes. Anything connected to the internet is, well, … yes, you guessed it, vulnerable to hackers. A lot is at stake when we’re talking about circuits strapped to our bodies. Some measure of protection is realized where the IP network ends and gives way to local low-speed interconnects on the other side of the local controller.

The smart textiles and wearable tech industry is heading toward us like a freight train. And maybe it’s a good thing. Some of us could stand to lose a few pounds, and fascination with new fitness gadgets just might be what gets us off the couch this winter. Don’t believe it? We’ll see what’s under your tree this year.