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Ian Ferguson Blog: The Evolution of the Wearables Market

by HEXUS Staff on 12 November 2014, 12:00

Tags: ARM

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This is a guest blog by Ian Ferguson, vice president of segment marketing at ARM. The views expressed in this blog are his and his alone. We invited Ian to share some of his thoughts on a hot topic of 2014: wearable technology and how it's changing with time.

At ARM TechCon, I was cornered by the friendly folks at HEXUS and asked what I thought about that infamous acronym, IoT. You can find a brief video of the interview here. From an early discussion about connected devices and how they are starting to transform commercial industries like manufacturing, city utilities and insurance, we moved to the hot topic of 2014, wearables. Many people are currently waiting with bated breath for the arrival of the Apple Watch which, at the time of writing, is scheduled to hit the stores in the first quarter of next year (2015). Microsoft has also just released a Cortex-M4-based smart band which is getting pretty good reviews.

In the interview, I mentioned the need for successful wearables to pass the turnaround test; that is, if you left the product in your house and started your commute to work, would you turn around and retrieve it? At present, your smartphone and house key pass that test. Most would also return to pick up their wallet (as opposed to grovelling to people at work for spare change to use in the vending machine!).

Many journalists have noted that the current raft of fitness bands, smartwatches and headgear are put down and placed in a drawer after a period of time as users no longer find the devices useful. This change in attitude may come from a change in diet or exercise habits and feel, rightly or wrongly, that they have got all they can from the device.

Technology is clearly improving at a pretty rapid pace of knots driven by consumer demand for lower cost, weight and form factor, coupled with increasing the life of the product on a single battery charge. Rest assured that ARM is working with its silicon partners in this area to deliver more for less. You can read David Maidment’s recent blog for more thoughts surrounding the technology piece. However, as a consumer myself, I think there are several additional factors which need to be considered to create a “sticky” product.

Combining Data with Wearables

Firstly, I am looking at the combination of data that can be used for personal use as well as being used at the “big data” level. The map application Waze, now owned by Google, provides routing and timing information for a person’s journey based on real-time feedback of traffic speed, gathered from understanding the pace at which (a lot of) people’s smartphones are travelling down a street.

If we apply that data into the wearable domain for healthcare, if I was an asthma sufferer, I would like to get information about my current condition and combine it with knowledge of weather patterns or other factors that may impact my asthma in the coming days. I may also want to share this information with other people that have a similar condition.

Other industries may also benefit from the data obtained, for example emergency services and medical practitioners can use headgear to analyse situations and incidents using real-time data to make life saving-decisions. Using a combination of local data with access to databases of information and other subject-matter experts, wearables can assist with urgent decisions.

Secondly, the industry needs to think about what wearables can do more efficiently than a smartphone. One example might be authentication. If a wearable can read heart rate or other biometric signatures that are unique to the individual, this might prove to be a better path for payment systems. Would we still need credit cards if the band is authenticated to you? Would this replace key-entry systems and passports? There are, of course, other technologies being explored such as fingerprint and facial recognition that certainly have an important place in the future. However, something simple, extremely cost-effective and highly reliable could carve out its own niche.

Thirdly, for this technology to be broadly adopted, it must be virtually invisible. The technology must simply work. I mentioned previously that the technology industry must look at continued improvement in energy-efficiency and cost at the system level but it is also important to ensure the usability of the technology.

The wearable must configure itself with minimal user intervention. If intervention is required, I would expect voice to be the primary mechanism for interacting with the device as system updates must happen automatically. Security is also paramount, rather than plugging these devices in overnight, I would expect, over a 10-year horizon, to see wireless power becoming more mainstream and become the method of charging ARM-based devices. Companies are working on charging electric vehicles in this manner as I write this and, with time, this method of delivering energy will become cost-effective. An aspect of this will need to be the ability to shift the processing depending on the availability/quality of the network connection and the additional processing resources available nearby and in the cloud.

The Smart Wearable

A company called Proteus Digital Health has developed a solution which their CEO describes as the combination of ingestible computing, wearable computing, mobile computing and the cloud. Simply put, the solution includes pills that create a unique ID when swallowed, which communicate with a patch worn on the skin, which communicates to a smartphone and then, via an Internet connection to the cloud. This technology can be used to monitor the timeliness of pill-taking by an elderly patient (or indeed family member), along with tracking other aspects of their lives. While healthcare does (at least in the US) come with some very tight regulatory issues,  I believe these will be reviewed and sped-up as insurers and hospitals start to recognise the fantastic benefits that highly-functional wearable devices can bring to their aging customer base.

One of the most interesting business aspects of this space is that I expect wearables to attract new companies from a very diverse set of industries. The opportunity for the technology industry to bring together and forge connections between companies from different industries is exciting as we will see organisations from healthcare and fashion, between retail and education and automotive and insurance collaborating to provide innovative products.  I expect to see innovation labs flourish as the meeting places for these industries, with the results being new services that improve the quality of our lives. The availability of low-cost evaluation boards like RaspberryPI and Arduino, coupled with crowd funding is enabling very quick, low-cost trials of ideas by individuals and small companies. Companies like Pebble and Omate started this way. I fully expect more to follow a similar path.

Maybe I should have put a caveat up front that my predictive powers have not proven to be 100 per cent accurate over the years. I have just returned from Las Vegas with less money in my pocket than when I left and I decided to hold onto stock of a company I previously worked at as it went from $80 up to $100 and….then…down to $6! That said, I am incredibly optimistic about this space as technology continues to improve.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts about how the wearable market will evolve over the coming years and hope that you will join in the conversation during ARM Wearables Week which is taking place from 17 – 21 November.



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