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A plethora of firms are racing to develop a feasible method for delivering power wirelessly, but thus far the best we’ve managed are short-range standards like Qi and PMA. A company called Energous is on hand at CES with a demo of its new wireless power system known amusingly as WattUp. It uses a mix of Bluetooth and RF to combine the convenience of wireless power with the security of a wireless network. If it all pans out, WattUp could juice up your phone from up to 20 feet (6.1 meters) away.
The heart of WattUp is a hub that’s basically a powerful RF transmitter station. Devices that want to receive power from the hub announce their presence via Bluetooth 4.0. WattUp then uses that connection to direct the wireless power signal to the device. It operates in the same unlicensed spectrum as WiFi, which makes me wonder about possible interference in busy wireless environments. Assuming the connection holds, though, the WattUp signal is absorbed and converted to DC power in the phone or tablet by a receiver chip.
As power consumption has become one of the most important metrics of CPU design, we’ve seen a variety of methods proposed for lowering CPU TDP. Intel makes extensive use of dynamic voltage and frequency scaling, ARM has big.Little, and multiple companies are researching topics like near threshold voltage (NTV) scaling as well as variable precision for CPU and GPU operations. Now, one small embedded company, Ambiq Micro, is claiming to have made a breakthrough in CPU design by building a chip designed for subthreshold voltage operation — with dramatic results.
Ambiq’s new design strategy could be critical to the long-term evolution of the wearables market, the Internet of Things, and for embedded computing designs in general — if the company’s technology approach can scale to address to a wide range of products
In spite of the significant backlashthat the Google Glass pilot program generated, Sony is dipping its toe into the augmented reality market. Dubbed “SmartEyeglass,” these hilariously bulky glasses are currently available for pre-order in Germany and the UK. This initial release is only intended for testing and development purposes, but does Sony really expect anyone to go out in public with these ridiculous goggles on?
Just last month, Google stopped selling the “explorer edition” of Google Glass. And while we’ll likely see another iteration on the concept, it’s clear that Google’s implementation was too conspicuous. SmartEyeglass, however, is even worse. The glasses themselves are bulky and odd-looking, but the addition of a large cable and a controller makes this “developer edition” stand out like a sore thumb.
Pebble set a Kickstarter record when it launched the original Pebble Smartwatch way back in 2012. That’s like the smartwatch stone age. Now it’s back with a new campaign for the Pebble Time, a smartwatch with a color e-paper screen and a somewhat more refined design than the original watch. If you think the internet might react negatively to a second Kickstarter from this company after the first one netted a whopping $10 million, you’d be wrong. It took only 17 minutes for the campaign to smash the $500,000 goal, and it’s now well into the millions.
The Pebble Time seems to have more in common with the original Pebble than the slightly more premium Pebble Steel. It looks nice, but not something you’d get away with wearing at a formal event. The body is plastic and the bezels are fairly large in relation to the screen. The back is curved to allow for a more ergonomic fit on your wrist. It still has physical buttons on the side for control rather than a touchscreen as most other smartwatches rely on. There’s also a microphone for voice interaction, but it’s not clear how that will tie into your phone yet.
This past weekend, rumors made their way into the wild that Apple is looking to add a watch to its line of iDevice products. However impressive or sleek an iWatch would end up being, would it really be a good idea for Apple to get into the wristwatch game?
Now, before you instantly discredit an iWatch rumor as just being a rumor that the news cycle created in order to have news to cycle, the report originated from the Wall Street Journal, and despite what you may or may not think about the publication, it has a great track record with Apple-related rumors. Reportedly, Apple has discussed the production of a smartwatch with one of its manufacturing partners, Hon Hai Precision Industry Co. — otherwise known as Foxconn — and would be adding some smartphone-like features into the device. The watch would be made out of curved glass that can form around the human body, and would run iOS.
Using a technique that looks strongly reminiscent of 1950s and ’60s core memory, two NASA nanotechnologists from the Ames Research Center in California have devised a method of weaving non-volatile computer memory into garments of clothing, or “e-textiles.”Read More
At its most basic, the e-textile is formed from a lattice of copper wires. The top copper wire is left bare, the bottom wire is coated in copper oxide, and at each intersection is a small piece of platinum. The data is stored in the copper oxide coating by a process that is called resistive switching, and if you understand how a transistor works, just think of the copper oxide as the dielectric layer. The read/write process is also much the same as normal RAM: a high voltage (3V in this case) is used to write bits, and a low voltage (0.5V) reads bits.
Sales growth of 1,886% in just four years’ time. That’s the kind of growth figure that will get investors salivating, and with good reason. Chart that kind of growth, and you’ll have something that roughly looks like a hockey stick. Growing off a small base at first, but then hitting an inflection point that leads to several years of exponential growth.
When it comes to products on that kind of “hockey stick” growth curve, they’ll sometimes fizzle out as “fad” products that see sales quickly disappear after peaking. However, there is also the opportunity to get invested near the start of trends that shape the future and lead to the creation of billion-dollar industries.
That 1,886% figure is actually the growth rate for wearable devices in the fitness market. They’ve become an everyday sight, from small, pocket-based devices like FitBit to wrist monitors such as Nike‘s (NYSE: NKE ) FuelBand. Research from the Consumer Electronics Association shows wearable fitness device sales jumped from just $43 million in sales during 2009 all the way up to an estimated $854 million in 2013. This year, wearable fitness devices are expected to rack up nearly $1.2 billion in sales, maintaining an impressive 35% annual growth rate.
With wearables invading our lives — from fitness to glasses to watches — are they just a passing fad or a product category set to continue growing for years to come?
The explosion in wearables is really just the next evolution of mobile growth. As of last June, 56% of Americans owned smartphones. With technologies such as Bluetooth allowing secure connections between devices, smartphones can act as the central “remote control” among a series of devices.
For example, a fitness wearable like Fitbit easily connects to smartphones. From there, an app developed by the company allows users to offload data from the device. The app stores historical data, and allows FitBit users to track the progress of other friends who own the device, among other benefits. On its own, FitBit is a neat pedometer, but when paired with its app on the smartphone, FitBit is a much more impressive product. It becomes a social network, and the hub from which people monitor their activity levels.
Or, we could look at watches. The most noticeable feature on Samsung’s Galaxy Gear is the watch’s ability to connect to a smartphone and accept voice calls from your wrist.
Are these products anyone needs?
The big question around wearables is whether there is really a need for them. While they pair with smartphones, can’t smartphones just handle many of the functions smart devices are built for? For example, reviews of Samsung’s Galaxy Gear watch noted that while the watch took nice pictures and allowed voice calls from someone’s wrist — cool in a Dick Tracy sense — it didn’t have much else in the way of redeeming qualities. Throw in the fact that the watch has the battery life of a smartphone thanks to its bright screen, and you have a very confusing product. It does a couple of features well, but they’re already handled by a smartphone. In addition, it’s a subpar watch because of its poor battery life. In short, it’s a product without a real purpose.
Smartphones in general are phenomenal “swiss army knives” — they have a series of features that replaces other hardware. For example, point-and-shoot camera sales have been in free fall for years. On Flickr, a photo hosting site that sees more than 3.5 million photos uploaded daily, the four most popular cameras are all now iPhones.
However, what’s interesting is that while sales of point-and-shoot cameras fell by 26% between June 2012 and May 2013, cameras with detachable lenses actually saw a 5% increase. The smartphone’s camera is eliminating low-end point-and-shoot cameras, but more professional cameras with high-end features not easily replicated by smartphones are growing.
Early growth in wearables has come from fitness products in large part because, like detachable lens cameras, they do something unique that smartphones can’t. These are devices better at tracking activity levels than most smartphones, and they also have longer battery lives. I own a FitBit, and regularly go over a week between charges. Consumers see the added benefit from fitness wearables, and the result is that they’ve quickly opened their wallets and created a billion-dollar product category.
Some wearables make sense, others don’t
We’re going to see no shortage of wearable products across 2014. A vast majority of them will be duds. Samsung’s Galaxy Gear watch was rushed to the market in part because of reports that Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL ) has been working on its own smartwatch. Wanting to beat a competitor to the market was the biggest factor in Samsung’s creation of a smartwatch, rather than the company creating a product that had a unique value and was truly beneficial to the lives of consumers.
Yet, beyond the poorly conceived products created to cash in on the wearables gold rush, there are plenty of fascinating creations in the wearables category. Google (NASDAQ:GOOG ) Glass is an intriguing product because it will test exactly how connected to technology people want to be at all times. On one hand, they could make technology less distracting. A quick reminder flashing in the corner of your glasses that you have a meeting in 15 minutes can be far less invasive than a phone that vibrates in your pocket, and requires you to stop what you’re doing to check a notification. Or, imagine walking to a restaurant while Google Glass puts step-by-step directions on your screen. That could be far more safe and useful than staring down at directions on a smartphone while crossing busy streets.
On the other hand, there are natural privacy concerns to people wearing devices at all times that can record video and take pictures. Also, while some people would find the interface of Google Glass helpful, others might find it too distracting. It’s hard to know at this point whether a product like Google Glass will find widespread adoption, but what shouldn’t be denied is that Glass presents a lot of features that are complementary to smartphones yet different than what smartphones are currently capable of.
Then there are applications beyond consumer products that wearables might fill in future years. For example, while most health and fitness wearables today track activity, wearables could have a profound impact on health care. Imagine wearables attached to your body — or even small implants — that have tremendously long battery lives and can monitor people’s health.
When you begin to think about wearables becoming central to an area like health care, the potential for health and fitness wearables to grow from their expected $1.2 billion market this year to become something like a $100 billion market isn’t so far-fetched.
A little perspective
Make no mistake, there are a ton of poorly designed wearable products that will hit the market in 2014 and beyond. At CES, 39 different exhibitors showed off health and fitness technology being used in wearables. Each time these dud products hit, there will be a temptation to write off the entire wearables category, and I’m sure you’ll see more than a few articles doing so.
However, the bigger picture is that it could take years to figure out exactly what the right place for wearables is. Google Glass might fail, but another product that refines some of its best features will then take its place. Fitness wearables might fade as thousands of fitness devices flood the market, but the longer-term opportunity might be wearables that track our general health rather than our activity levels.
I’ve seen enough to know that wearables will have a huge impact across the next decade of technology and huge upside for investors in companies who create fantastic products in the category. Yet, just be certain you’ll have to laugh at some pretty mindless wearable creations during that time. This is technology that looks like it’s out of The Jetsons, after all.
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