Where data is the new oil, wearable technology is the new offshore drilling.
In the modern environment, wearable devices have come to mean wrist-based devices –either smart bands or smart watches– that not only primarily act as a simple health and fitness gadget, but also serve as a companion to the phone by displaying alerts, notifications, etc. Apple’s watches are taking the lead, in terms of recognition and market size, and a host of economical and more targeted devices from Fitbit, Huawei, Garmin, and Xiaomi pervade this space. However, devices that can be categorized as wearables are extremely diverse in form and function. From wearables with smart sensors that collect various biometric and body motion parameters (e.g. Hexoskin) to exoskeleton suits meant for aiding in workplace or military applications to smart shoes and insoles for sports performance (e.g. Nike, Adidas, Mi), medical diagnostics and rehabilitation (e.g. ReTiSense, Orpyx), or the now-defunct Google Glass, wearable devices are quietly percolating in all aspects of human endeavor primarily to help us understand our own health and behavior and to encourage us to make better choices.
Data –about a user’s immediate and long-term health, biometrics, surroundings, behavior, and interactions– is driving the momentum and growth of wearable devices. Add the immense power of data science, machine learning and predictive modelling, and wearable technology starts appearing to hold the promise as high as the smartphone revolution. Users are not just satisfied with heart rate anymore; they ask for high-quality ECG, with atrial fibrillation prediction. In addition, users are not content with smart glasses that can just show your text messages and driving or walking directions. They want a fully independent virtual assistant that can recognize people and places in real time.
With these feature requests, the wearable companies are happy to execute. After all, if search results and social media behavior can help them understand consumer behavior, imagine what can be done with heart-rate change, pupil-dilation, or for that matter, direct brain-waves data. Where data is the new oil, wearable technology is the new offshore drilling. To understand what the future holds, let’s look at the key technological enablers for this segment:
Sensor types and accuracy: From pulse rate and motion sensors a few years ago to non-invasive glucose sensors, or ultra-low-power camera sensors in the future, the sensor system will become diverse, highly accurate, and ultra-miniaturized. Combined with massively powerful machine-learning, artificial intelligence engines, and a focus on secure architecture, we can have a combination of a highly accurate evaluator of our health, behavior, and habits, as well as a guidance provider to our choices, mental and emotional state, and health.
Battery life: Devices like Garmin’s XYZ boast a month’s worth of battery life, thanks to processors such as Ambiq’s Apollo3 which combines innovations like subthreshold power optimized technology (SPOT) and Voice-on-SPOT (VoS), that are tailor-made for battery-powered wearable devices. The relentless push from companies in this area will ensure even lower powered devices in the near future. This will eventually, or even potentially, push past the bottleneck of “energy-harvesting power”, where devices can easily be powered by ambient energy that can be harvested. In the case of wearables, the device could simply be powered by human body heat and motion, making it fully self-powered. Though wearable batteries themselves may have not evolved much, innovations are just around the corner –like solid-state batteries– will significantly boost the life, usability, and safety of all devices.
Endpoint intelligence: Most wearable devices are designed to sense, perform rudimentary processing of the data, prepare the data for transmission, and send it to a more powerful “hub” –usually a smartphone. Before Apple’s latest update, a simple Siri query required a phone nearby. This limit to the processing power due to cost, energy, device design, and other factors, created a ceiling for the capabilities a wearable device could provide. Future processors are building in several innovations to break through. One approach is to include neural-network engine within the chip, as well as advanced ultra-low-power audio sensors. Future processors will include similar advancements for image-sensing, enabling always-on visual-processing features. These processors will enable significant amount of learning, contextualization, and personalization for the devices, thus, enabling use cases like face-recognition by glasses, advanced query processing by earbuds, or emotional health determination by a watch.
Communication and security: As more and more personal and sensitive data gets collected, stored, and sent out, we will need to rethink security and privacy when it comes to wearable devices. This includes creating new innovations that prevent unauthorized capture of data by the devices, and creating appropriate regulations on data management and security. Newer communication standards, like 5G, will enable multiple devices and sensors to work together and provide instantaneous feedback.
With these advancements, let’s look at what the wearable device of the near future would look like. As stated earlier, the key areas where we can foresee significant impact are: