Powering the Wearable Market, One Functionality at a Time

Infineon Technologies
Wearables
Illustration: © IoT For All

We live in a connected world dominated by sensing technology and intelligent devices. Everyone is trying to climb the connected ladder between brands and consumers to have the most useful and intuitive product in today’s market. According to Pew Research Center, one of the most popular smart devices is wearables, with one in five Americans owning a wearable. Wearables are changing how consumers communicate, monitor, and share information – they’re becoming a key enabler to progressing this “connected world” we’re all living in.

Despite the promising signs, the overall wearable market has not hit the aggressive market growth as analysts predicted. Around 1 in 10 users said they no longer used their wearable devices, with one-third of these owners abandoning them within a couple of weeks of purchase, as revealed by Ericsson. The reason behind this is that consumers do not truly know what they want. Whether it be for health or lifestyle purposes, consumers will try wearables as an experiment and then quickly toss them aside if they are unimpressed by the limited functionality of the connected device.

Rather than taking the time to address consumer needs, brands are flinging products out to the market to figure out what type of functionality is beneficial and marketable. One of America’s biggest multinational technology and e-commerce companies recently announced a catalog of half a dozen different smart wearable products. Based on early feedback, researchers concluded that only one product could make it to the market due to consumer research interest. Global brands are evidently struggling to produce wearables that stick in the market.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also had a forcing function on the wearables market. Gartner recently revealed how the 2020 wearable market saw a momentary spike in health wearables, leading to the assumption that consumers and vendors alike have appeared to have aligned on the value of health-focused wearables.

What’s becoming increasingly clear is that niche products don’t meet consumer needs. Consumers want multiple functionalities in a device, more commonly recognized as an “all-in-one” wearable winner. But to develop the market for these all-in-one wearables further, there is a requirement for yet more functionality; more energy-hungry sensors to be packed into the device, which in turn causes power to become a limiting factor.

Sensing the Wearable Want

IDC estimates there will be over 55 billion connected devices worldwide by 2025. Putting that in perspective, this is the equivalent of every person on this planet owning seven or more connected devices. The overall design must have the right form factor and be portable and easy to use. At the core of this design are embedded sensors. From consumer wearables that aid in a healthier lifestyle to medical wearables that help determine a patient’s vital signs, sensing components quickly advance to help bring these wearable technologies to life, offering users a sense of safety, productivity, and health incentives.

These embedded sensors are enabling complex interactions between people and devices, helping enhance the user experience to make daily interactions with smart technology more natural and seem as if the devices around us intuitively understand what we want them to do. Most importantly, these sensors provide the wearer with real benefits. Key requirements of embedded sensor technology for connected devices include small size, low-power consumption and overall ease of ‘wearability’ for added comfort and functionality. Small, energy-saving sensors provide a sophisticated way of tracking a person’s health, physical activity, and exercise; RF components ensure the best possible connectivity and location determination; and wireless charging makes everyday life much easier, and it is almost as if the devices “charge themselves.”

The essential value of sensor technology lies in making our lives more convenient through seamless, natural interactions between people and sensing devices, so users can focus on the more important things in life. As the wearable industry continues to advance, there will be a need for more accurate, compact, and reliable sensing technologies for proper long-term functionality in wearables.

More Functionality, More Challenges

Consumers want an “all-in-one” smart device, and today’s wearable devices are moving towards just that. Texting, calling, timekeeping, and vital monitoring are slowly becoming a standard for today’s wearables.

However, stopping this adoption of the “new standard” are issues with wearable battery life and power management structure. Essentially, it’s difficult to compact multiple sensors for various capabilities into a thin, small and lightweight device. With each newly added functionality, power management for small form factors becomes increasingly more challenging. Ways to address efficiency issues include:

  1. Moving data wirelessly through LoRa, NB-IoT, etc.
  2. Offloading high power functions to solutions like Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE)
  3. Choosing an efficient microcontroller (MCU) for power management purposes to minimize power consumption – especially when the device is inactive
  4. Using pin-type charging or wireless charging instead of USB plug in connection
  5. Advancing overall sensor technology

Wireless power is becoming increasingly integral for the multifaceted world of smart things, and designers need highly integrated semiconductor solutions with lower loss rates, more powerful performance, and greater linearity.

Boosting Battery Technology

Battery life is one of the biggest pain points in wearable tech today. Smart wearable devices require effective power management to run many different functionalities at once. Consumers want batteries that both last a long time and are easy to recharge. While most of today’s wearables use lithium-ion (Li-ion) or Lithium-ion polymer (Li-poly) batteries, these conventional batteries are only suitable for basic one-functionality wearables that require simple sensors and low power capabilities. They won’t be able to keep up with the demand of adding more functionality to a single device.

One solution being evaluated is no matter what kind of battery is embedded in a wearable, it will eventually need to be replaced or recharged. Semiconductor companies address this need for new battery alternatives by designing battery-management technologies specifically for wearables instead of new battery technology; one solution being evaluated is energy harvesting in the wearable battery itself while on the user through triboelectric charging. One solution being evaluated instead of new battery technology is energy harvesting in the wearable battery itself while on the user through triboelectric charging.

What About Security?

From tracking health and location details to collecting personal and contactless payment information, today’s wearables are being used for various daily tasks we once relied on our smart phone for. Wearables are increasingly collecting sensitive user data, which is bringing security issues to the forefront – namely with IoT security.

Nokia’s Threat Intelligence Report 2020 reported that the share of IoT infections increased by 100% in 2020, and IoT devices now make up 32.7% of the total infected devices observed. As wearables are an extension of the user’s smart phone, both devices pose a major security risk for the user and connected wireless network if not properly secured. If a mobile device or smartwatch is connected to a public network, it could expose valuable information if the security infrastructure isn’t up to date. It could be an entrance door for hackers. It could be an entrance door for hackers.

Currently, there’s limitations on what security measures can be used in wearables due to their small form factor. To improve security, manufacturers are adding two-factor authentication, facial recognition, vital sensing, and fingerprint sensing to protect wearables from end to end thoroughly.  Safe, secured, and seamless high-value semiconductor components will drive IoT security to an unobtrusive, connected world.

IoT Connectivity Future

Wearables will accelerate the convergence of the digital and physical worlds. PwC notes, “wearable technology has only just begun its impact on the enterprise,” and semiconductor companies are going to lead this enterprise charge by supplying a greater diversity of high-value semiconductor circuitry for the ever-growing diversity of IoT applications. As more intelligent technology, like artificial intelligence, becomes available and integrated into wearables, connected devices will innately become more intuitive, leading us to a world where our devices take better care of us without us having to worry about them quite so much.