The idea of wearable technology is not new. Eye glasses and wristwatches, for example, have been around for generations. But modern technology is pushing the category into new areas, expanding into concepts that were once unimaginable and forcing us to re-think what connectivity really is.
Connecting new devices, such as those that monitor our health, with those that are now mainstream, such as smartphones, is liberating a wealth of information that could have a substantial impact on our lives. And that’s exciting for a technology company like Broadcom.
This momentum is all part of the new concept known as the Internet of Things, a catch-all buzz term for a wide range of non-conventional Internet-connected devices, such as refrigerators, home thermostats and even cars. But the Internet of Things isn’t just limited to home appliances and autos.
Our bodies, as well as our behaviors, can also generate a wealth of data for wearable sensors to collect and processors to analyze. We’re talking about things like heart rate and blood sugar readings, grams of carbs consumed and number of calories burned. This data allows us to learn more about ourselves, others and the world around us.
At the heart of wearable technology is the wireless connectivity embedded into the sensor-laden devices that will be the driving force behind the development and adoption of the Internet of Things ecosystem. Not only can wireless technologies transmit our personal data to the cloud for analysis and safekeeping, but they can turn the devices we already carry with us — namely, our smartphones and tablets — into helpers that take the workload off of the sensing devices themselves.
We can harness the processing power of today’s smartphones and tablets to negotiate all that new data — such as vital signs, athletic metrics or sleep quality — collected by a variety of wearable devices, which will help to reduce the processing requirements and power needs of the wearable device. That, in turn, will bring down costs for manufacturers, as well as consumers.
In the future, we may see battery technology advancements that allow sensors to supply power to their own ample computing hardware. Wireless power transmission, power harvesting, or even human-generated power, could really change the game. But until then, companies like Broadcom will focus on efficient radio designs and minimal power consumption.
Strong wireless standards like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth Smart, NFC and GPS make our job easier. Much engineering thought and effort has gone into platforms like our Wireless Internet Connectivity for Embedded Devices (WICED™) development kit, for example. Likewise, our BCM4390 SoC allows manufacturers to pursue their passions and expertise in creating life-changing wearable products by adding in self-contained wireless connectivity. The area of wireless combination chips is evolving rapidly and Broadcom is at the forefront of this integration trend.
For instance, what happens when everybody is carrying devices that wirelessly gather and sync continuously monitored heart rate data? Our wireless networks will surely strain under the pressure. Wireless spectrum is, of course, a limited commodity, and we must do everything we can to ensure a future where our infrastructure can bear the load we press upon it. New access points and home gateways, small cells, backhauled data and extreme high-capacity switches are part of the answer to the question of just how we’ll manage the flow of exponentially more data traffic.
The mainstreaming of wearable technology will not occur at some distant point on an intangible horizon. According to some research estimates, more than 100 million wearable devices will ship in 2014 alone, and by 2018 we could see as many as 485 million wearable device shipments. But what will those devices look like? That’s still anyone’s guess as the market is so rife with innovative ideas that we just don’t know which ones will become the most popular: smart glasses, wristwatches, bracelets, or, perhaps, a new form-factor we haven’t yet seen.
A peek at the existing product landscape reveals quite a bit of diversity. The fitness category has seen dozens of popular entrants, including activity tracking bracelets from FitBit, Jawbone and Nike, among others. There are even fitness and activity monitors now available for pets! Wearable medical devices already available include blood pressure monitors, blood glucose monitors and even devices aimed at helping children manage conditions like autism and attention deficit disorder.
While wearable technology has already become more than a concept, it’s still a category that’s evolving. Anything is possible with the right technology to power it — and that’s what we’re focused on building here at Broadcom.