Saturday, September 23, 2023

Wearable Technology Gaining Ground, Thanks to Smartphones and Tablets

By getting smartphones and tablets to do the chunk of their work, smart little devices are able to sit smugly in watches and sunglasses, to lend a helping hand or a dash of excitement to your life! However, making such devices is challenging, considering the special technical, health, privacy, security and, well, fashion related concerns to be handled! -- Janani Gopalakrishnan Vikram

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Intel too is working on creating processors for wearables. These will probably be half the size of the Atom processors used commonly in mobile devices, and consume power in the range of a few microwatts.

Syncing with the wearer
Wearable devices use a variety of sensors ranging from gyroscopes and accelerometers to location sensors. Sensors in a health monitor might constantly measure vital body signs like pulse and temperature, while those in a fitness tool might monitor how many jumps you have done, how long you have run or how fast you are moving. Those in an augmented reality application might keep a close watch on how you move, bend or turn your head, to ensure that the display is in sync with the environment.

Sensors used in wearable technology can be broadly classified into body sensors and ambient sensors. MEMS technology has led to the development of miniature sensors that can be worn without much disturbance. Wearable sensors are sometimes combined with ambient sensors, which are embedded in the environment. A combination of body and ambient sensors could, for example, be used to unobtrusively monitor senior citizens in their home environment, collecting information on their activities, sleep, restroom visits, etc. The network, in turn, can convey alerts to remote caregivers if there is a variation in the usual behaviour pattern.

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In early days, sensors were integrated using wires that ran through the garment. Today’s wearables, however, use wireless communications technologies like radio frequency (RF), near-field communications (NFC), Bluetooth and ZigBee. These are suitable for wearables because of their low cost, small-size transceivers and low power consumption. The recently developed IEEE 802.15.4a standard based on ultra-wide-band (UWB) impulse radio opens the door for high-data-rate yet low-power, low-cost sensor network applications with the possibility of highly accurate location estimation.

For most monitoring applications, the sensor network would, in turn, have to transmit data to a remote site using an information gateway such as a mobile phone or laptop.

Syncing with mobile devices
In a way, the growth of wearable technology products can be attributed to the popularity of smartphones and tablets. While wearable products are capable of doing a certain amount of standalone processing, most of the current generation products work together with a mobile device—which gives them access to the whole Cloud! They simply partner with a connected mobile device via Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or other wireless communications technology, and transfer a large part of the processing and value-add work to the mobile. In fact, this is what enables the creation of light and safe wearable technology products that can still perform meaningful tasks.

Wireless technologies like 3G/4G, GPS and Bluetooth are popular in wearable devices like watches and augmented-reality glasses. While these are relatively mature technologies, the actual challenge in using these in wearable devices is three-fold: Enabling these on the device using very little power; coping with the general telecom issues that plague all the mobile devices; and selecting the right platform and software in order to handle such data transactions securely.

“The features of today’s wearable products are limited to basic connectivity like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Battery life is one of the most important considerations for wearable devices—much like it is for mobile devices. Even technologies and hardware that support communication protocols like Bluetooth and 3G radio are battery-intensive,” says Vishwanathan.

Vishwanathan adds “Communication of information collected from the wearable devices to another device or to servers is also tricky. Connectivity issues like keep-alive connections, connection drops, and switching between cell towers and others systems are some of the most challenging issues to manage even in traditional mobile applications, and these challenges carry forward to wearable devices as well.”

Another important consideration is to fit the relevant information into the tiny screens of wearable devices. Traditional, non-software devices are able to do it elegantly, but software as a paradigm is data-intensive, and simplifying that information and interface to fit into smaller screens is something that software vendors have to ensure.

Recently, Persistent Systems released a white-paper on Consumerware—a form of consumerisation of software—that talks about ten characteristics of Consumerware which traditional software might lack. At a high level, Consumerware applications are endpoint agnostic, context-driven as opposed to event-driven, content-centric rather than program-centric, transformational instead of transactional, data-driven, collaborative, and will bridge the final frontier in human-machine interaction. So mobile devices including wearable ones are actually leading to a disruptive change in the software world.

Ganesan adds, “In fact, with the help of communication technologies, one can use their wearable devices to connect to other devices and hence enable the Internet of Things.”

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