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DESIGN & PRODUCTS WEARABLE & IMPLANTABLE ELECTRONICS Are we nearly there yet? By Randy Scasny We’ve seen wearable technology accelerate fast but with every year that passes we’re promised that this year will be ‘the’ year for wearable tech and yet we still seem to be stuck in what appears to be, an insurmountable development curve. Wearable connected devices have been hitting the shelves but not all have seen great success. With McKinsey Global and Cisco both predicting that the IoT will generate over $10 trillion in the next decade, there is huge revenue potential for wearables but what are designers and developers missing - what are the final barriers that we need to break through? At Farnell element14, we believe that there are a number of challenges that need to be overcome for wearables to achieve widespread adoption: engineers need to develop products that are affordable, and overcome the technical challenges that limit their usefulness. Will wearables ever be more than a luxury? For wearables to be a really attractive package, they have to be affordable. Many consumers still feel that a wearable device is a luxury and not a necessity but design engineers need not worry. Mobile phones faced exactly the same hurdle in the 1980’s and now analysts forecast that by 2019 the world will see over 5 billion mobile phone users. For the majority of consumers, price will always be a deciding factor for purchasing a wearable device. The 2016 Gartner Personal Technologies Study surveyed 9,592 people and the response heavily indicated that wearable devices are too expensive based on their perceived usefulness. Gartner believes that wearable providers that do not have a strong brand name will find it more difficult to grow market share, competing directly with popular brands. Instead, they should accept lower margins and provide an alternative that is priced significantly lower than top brands, but still has good quality for price-sensitive consumers. As with any new technology, prices rarely remain high, especially in sectors where competition is so high as with wearable technology. From a design and production perspective, costs also decrease as global distributors such as Farnell element14 offer broad line cards and design services to support designers and help to streamline the design through to production experience. As hinted by the Gartner study, some consumers are yet to feel the need to invest in an item of wearable technology. Angela McIntyre, research director at Gartner explains, “The abandonment rate of wearables is quite high relative to the usage rate. To offer a compelling enough value proposition, the uses for wearable devices need to be distinct from what smartphones typically provide. Wearables makers need to engage users with incentives and gamification. The greatest hurdle for fitness tracker and smartwatch providers to overcome is the consumer perception that the devices do not offer a compelling enough value proposition.” This sends a clear message that in such a crowded market there is not enough product differentiation, the wrist is becoming the most sought after wearable real estate. One segment of the wearables market that has performed relatively well is fitness tracking. In recent times, however, we have seen a number of media stories about high abandonment rates of fitness trackers including FitBit, JawboneUP and Nike’s FuelBand. These brands have responded with new product releases and in some cases mergers and tactical acquisitions to help take brands in a new direction. Typically, these brands are moving into the health market, which could be a positive step as consumers see their health as important and will potentially see a health device as more of a necessity. So it would seem that offering unique features is one way of differentiating and overcoming the perception that wearable products are not worth their price. Wes Henderek, an analyst and director of connected intelligence for The NPD Group heeds a warning for smart watch designers saying, “There’s this grey area in the middle where these companies are going to struggle, if they try and target too large of a segment and add too many features, they become a lesser smartwatch and they’re not targeting enough of a niche.” Focussing on valuable and unique niche features such as health or personal safety and security could be the way forward for wearable technology designers. Forget standards, it’s all about interoperability A wearable is of little use if it cannot connect to allow the data it collects to be analysed. In the general IoT landscape it’s easy to see how design engineers can be stuck for choice when it comes to choosing which protocol or operating system to use, as on the surface there are so many, with WiFi pioneer Cees Links sharing that, “The sheer number of possible new standards initiatives can be confusing and is unnecessarily fragmenting the IoT industry.” Focussing on wearable technology specifically, most designers opt to connect to a cell phone, typically using ANT, a proprietary but open source protocol, for ultra-low power, short-range wireless technology for sensor networks using 2.4-GHz ISM. ANT is ideal for wearable tech as it can be configured to spend long periods of time in low power or sleep mode and wake briefly to communicate data. With ANT and similar protocols offering key functionality for wearable devices why is there still an issue? Although most wearables tether to a cell phone, there is Randy Scasny, element14 community, Premier Farnell - www.element14.com 44 Electronic Engineering Times Europe March 2017 www.electronics-eetimes.com


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