What is Wearable Technology?
Wearables or Wearable Technology are smart compact electronic devices that can be comfortably worn on a body. These devices are used for tracking information concerned with vital body signals or present information to users on a real-time basis. These devices are usually hands-free gadgets powered by a microprocessor with an ability to sync with other devices such as mobile devices or laptop computers. With rapid advances in technology, a plethora of wearables have evolved and are considered to be the next big innovation after smartphones. Wearables are popular in consumer electronics (smartwatch and activity tracker) apart from having applications in advanced textiles, healthcare and other sectors.
Wearable technology components.
In simple words, wearable device operation is to sense, process and communicate. Therefore, a simple generalized block diagram representation of wearable technology is shown below.
- Sensors: The most important component of a wearable device is the data acquisition or sensor system. The choice of sensors depends on the target application. The sensors collect data about the physical properties of the body and the surrounding environment. Micro-Electro-Mechanical System (MEMS) based motion sensors such as 3-axis accelerometers, gyroscopes, magnetometers, or barometric altimeters, play a key role in monitoring the motion of a human body. Biometric sensors like heart rate variability (HRV), galvanic skin response (GSR), blood pressure, or electroencephalogram (EEG) are widely used in healthcare devices. Examples of a few other common sensors are environmental sensors which measure temperature, pressure or UV light and human interface sensors which measure proximity, gesture, or position.
- Processor or Controller: It is the brain of a wearable device that controls and processes the entire operations. The selection of a processor or a controller is based on the type and features of the device. Microcontrollers (MCUs) can address most of the requirements of a wearable device. Advanced devices require a dedicated application processor. The 32-bit ARM processors are preferred as they provide the best computing performance and energy efficiency. Modern controllers integrate sophisticated analog and programmable digital functionality in a single chip, along with ARM cortex cores. Few advanced wearables have a separate co-processor to handle the computing of sensor data from the main processor. A simple wearable device can run with a lightweight real-time operating system (RTOS), whereas advanced devices require sophisticated operating systems such as Android.
- Wireless Connectivity: Seamless fast wireless interaction with one or more devices is an important part of any wearable device. Depending on the application requirements, the device needs to support different wireless protocols such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth low energy (BLE), near-field communication (NFC), and IEEE 802.15.4 based proprietary protocol.
- Power Consumption: Power optimization is an utmost constraint as these devices are battery operated. Further, the device needs to be always on and always connected for continuous monitoring. Moreover, to reduce the overall size, battery capacity is often compromised. Therefore, wearable devices need to operate at significantly low power to conserve battery life. Controllers and wireless technologies are designed to provide the best performance and energy efficiency.
Aesthetics: The wearables need to be fashionable as they are often worn on the body. That is why many manufactures are partnering with the fashion industry to design stylish devices. A simple good user interface can help to improve aesthetics.
Size: Wearables must be as small as possible so that they fit on to a wearable. Nevertheless, at the same time, they must integrate all the required components.
Tolerance: These devices are worn on the body, and they need to be tolerant to water, moisture, sweat and environment conditions.
Today, we are living in a data-centric connected world and technologies like wearables, and the Internet of Things (IoT) is driving them. Further, with the advancement in virtual reality, augmented reality, cloud computing, machine learning, and other technologies are helping wearables to be ubiquitous. Wearable devices have already become a part of our day to day activities providing insights that were unknown before. There are many applications of wearables, and few are listed below.
- Smartwatches: Smartwatches are fashionable wrist-worn devices that have expanded functionality and connect to mobile phones. Apart from a regular watch, it can provide many features of the smartphone such as new notifications, call operations, calendar reminders and many more. Manufacturers are also adding new features to track physical activity, location services and health monitoring to smartwatches. The Apple Watch is the most popular smartwatch, and many other companies have their smartwatch brands like Samsung Galaxy Watch, Xiaomi Watch and many more.
- Fitness Trackers: These are also known as activity trackers that are designed to monitor and track outdoor activities such as heart rate, calories burned, steps taken, and a range of other activities. Fitness trackers usually focus more on the specific functionality, rather than aesthetic appeal. The popular fitness tracker is from FitBit, and plenty of other fitness trackers are available as per the requirements.
- Smart Clothing: It is a result of wearable technology integrating with the textile industry. They can provide deeper insights compared to smaller wearables and help in advanced monitoring for both lifestyle improvement and medical care. There are many smart clothing products in the market, such as Siren Socks that can detect foot ulcers, Naviano smart swimsuits that can provide alerts to apply sunscreen, and many other kinds. Smart clothing has the great potential to benefit firefighters, construction workers, athletes and a few others.
- Smart Display: These are mostly head-mounted displays (HMDs) or smart glasses that provide a display in the user’s field of view. It can function as a normal monitor, augmented reality (AR), or virtual reality (VR) setting. These devices allow users to interact with digital information and provide a feel for the real-life environment surrounding them. There are plenty of devices available in the market, such as Microsoft’s HoloLens, Samsung’s Gear VR, Oculus Go, and others.