Editor’s note: Hamid Farzaneh is the CEO of Sensoplex and has held leadership positions across public and private companies in the electronics industry for over 30 years.
Wearables as a second brain. The Internet of Self and Things. One trillion sensors….
There’s no doubt that a sensor-laden world is the buzz of the town. The next Big Thing. In fact, there is so much buzz that many consumers probably dismiss it as hype. Yet, in spite of all this hype, as a 30-year veteran of Silicon Valley’s semiconductor and sensor industry, this is about as exciting a space I’ve ever been in.
The reality is of course more nuanced. Yes it’s true that the market is growing extremely fast and there will be many winners — but there will be even more losers in the space. Sensors are getting amazingly accurate, but wearable products continue to be clunky and provide a poor user experience. In fact, studies have found that 40 percent of consumers who buy and try a wearable fitness tracker leave it sitting on their bedside after a month or two.
There’s clearly a lot of work to be done.
Unfortunately, PR hype and science-fiction-fueled ideas, have pushed consumer expectations to an all-time high, and have raised the bar for just about any company (look at Apple, for example). Meanwhile, vaporware that takes advantage of this enthusiasm, mixed with crowdfunding campaigns, are a real danger and risk affecting the industry’s credibility if companies do not deliver. At this point, it is critical to separate over-promised functionality from a reality that is still, by any measure, incredibly exciting.
In this article, we’ll review myths and misconceptions that are prevalent around hardware and that may mislead consumers.
There’s a rule in hardware: The smaller it is, the more energy efficient. Batteries, however, are an exception to the rule: Their capacity is directly related to their volume. In addition, buyers of wearables are looking for newer, more accurate sensors that tend to require a lot more power. This causes a dilemma (and often quite a bit of friction) between product marketing folks, industrial designers and electronics engineers.
Practically, the current state of battery technology means that any wearable with more than an accelerometer will need a decent-sized battery that requires recharging every few days. Such a battery is also going to take up a good portion of the available space in a wearable device.
Once you introduce a display and more sensors, like the Apple Watch, which also sports a gyroscope and a custom set of heart rate sensors (LEDs and photodiodes), daily charging becomes the norm. Apple, being very conscious of the inconvenience associated with yet another device that requires daily wired charging, has integrated wireless charging to avoid the Watch from being left on the bedside table. Of course, the $400+ cost and the status symbol of the Watch would also make it less likely that users leave it behind.
You may have also read about those wonderful printed, paper-thin batteries. Unfortunately, since battery capacity is directly proportional to physical volume, printed batteries will not be able to provide enough power for second generation wearables anytime soon – at least not until there is a significant breakthrough that is brought to market at scale (and is not just sitting in MIT’s labs).
With that said, expect daily charging of health-tracking wearables that go beyond the pedometer (for now).
Many wearable gurus have stated that one of the keys to success for wearable products is for them to be unnoticeable – or practically invisible. This has fed into announcements about tattoo, printed, stamp-sized or flexible sensors and devices that you can stick onto your skin in order to collect motion or bio-information. Even the New York Times ran a piece about the potential for such skin-like sensors that could have daily applications in the not-so-distant future.
The reality is that sensors are not complete systems. Sure, sensors can be minuscule, but they simply capture raw data. Devices still needs to process that data and then wirelessly transmit it. And processing requires power, as does wireless transmission, unless it’s super close proximity (think millimeters). In addition, often some amount of memory is needed to store the data until it can be transmitted.
Adding any minimal processor, memory and wireless radio would add real estate and volume and immediately negate the notion of invisibility – you’ll only forget about it as much as you forget about a smartwatch. The kind of super-thin devices being talked about just cannot house the necessary batteries to power sensors that provide the accurate biofeedback that consumers are looking for.
Flexible screens and printed sensors are real and cool but are not ready to be part of an invisible wearable arsenal just yet.
Alternative Power Generation
One workaround to the battery size and recharging obstacles for wearables is the idea of generating power through different means. Solar panels, kinetic movement and thermoelectric generators have all been suggested as possible solutions. Even capturing the power of chewing to charge devices has been brought up as a possibility.
For each of these solutions there are issues at the limits of current technology. For solar panels, there are well-known obstacles around size, efficiency and placement (how much sun will your wrist get)? Kinetic recharging using your body’s movement (chewing, swinging your arms, or your leg movement) is backed by more mature Piezzo technology but it’s just insufficient in terms of efficiency.
Lastly, thermoelectric generators rely on temperature differentials and require at least 10 degree Celsius difference between the inside of the wearable and ambient temperature. Unfortunately, these are circumstances that rarely occur unless you’re streaming a video to your tiny smartwatch in a snowstorm.
There are some interesting things being done in this space but don’t expect it to have a big effect on your recharging needs for the next few years.
Miracle mHealth Sensors
Another misconception we’ve seen is around small, specialized consumer health devices that can measure your blood pressure without a pressuring cuff, or measure your blood sugar without utilizing a needle pinprick.
This might come as a surprise, but mHealth products are some of the bestselling consumer sensor products. Those pinprick glucose meters? That’s an annual market of over $10 billion. And the market’s Holy Grail is finding a way to use optical sensors in order to avoid needing to puncture the skin. Such systems rely on shining a light through the skin to read tiny variations in the blood stream and determine blood sugar content or pressure. Sounds incredible but unfortunately, in spite of all the R&D and progress within labs, there isn’t yet such a device that is accurate enough to pass FDA muster.
While devices for measuring blood oxygen content and skin conductivity exist, other functionality such as optical blood pressure measurement is still in the lab. Even relatively mature optical devices for heart rate measurement are proving difficult to introduce in the real world, partly because they are very susceptible to motion and “noise,” which requires complex and processing-intensive filtering in order to extract valid signals from the sea of noise. Add to that different wrist sizes & bone structures that change vein location on the wrist and a device will get significant reading variations.
We’re hoping for progress in this vertical soon, but even when a breakthrough is made you can bet that medical device incumbents will fight tooth and nail to retain control of the market.
Fashion and Smart Workout Clothes
And finally, you’ve probably heard about all the fashion designers that are getting into the wearable and tech-infused clothing game. Smart rings, necklaces, muscle-strain sensing shirts, and dresses with digital screens: Innovation is rampant and exciting in this vertical. However, there are significant usability problems with clothing and jewelry that go beyond tech and into the culture of fashion.
Most importantly, the whole practical idea behind fashion is that you don’t wear the same thing – either jewelry or clothing – two days in a row. Do you really want to wear that giant ring every day? Are the smart sensors in your clothing stitched in or can they be removed? If they can be removed, will you remember every day to switch them onto your new outfit? Much of the way we dress runs counter to using wearables and sensors as part of your everyday clothing, and fashion-focused companies need to be away of that.
Another problem is the need for clothing to be washed, especially in the case of workout clothes. Washing machines are extremely harsh on electrodes embedded into fabric so you will be doing lots of hand washing in cold water to maximize the lifespan of these clothes. Workout clothes will not be for the lazy.
These are just a number of things we would like for consumers to keep in mind as we build more capable and powerful wearables that can help us measure our lives and be more productive. There are some incredible companies and products just around the corner, but like any industry, it takes years to bring the most advanced hardware R&D to market.
For now, let’s keep dreaming but also make sure to keep our expectations in check.