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WaRP speed ahead for wearable electronics

Wearable electronics has been a topic pursued for some years, but with little obvious progress beyond entry level devices. While initial offerings were invariably some form of clothing based device, the technology has advanced slowly and it appears its day may be arriving. In fact, analysts expect the wearables market to be worth $50billion by 2017.

There has been a flurry of launches over the last few months, culminating in the Consumer Electronics Show at the beginning of January. Visitors to the Las Vegas event would have seen an array of wearable devices, broadly classified as 'watches', 'bands' and 'glasses'. Also on show was some of the technology that enables wearables.

Device builders and application developers have focused on a small number of markets, including healthcare and fitness, as well as adjuncts to smartphones.
Typically, those looking to develop devices for these markets need to start from a platform in order to create a range of products as quickly as possible.

Looking to help such companies navigate the wearables market more readily, Freescale is enabling an open source, scalable reference platform that provides a set of building blocks that will allow companies to develop a range of wearable product designs.

According to Freescale, this platform is not limited to just one form factor or product category. The flexible, system level design kit, which supports embedded wireless charging, incorporates processors and sensors within a hybrid architecture for scalability and flexibility (see fig 1). It also comes with open source software. Called WaRP – short for the wearables reference platform – the offering is intended to enable design creativity in multiple vertical segments.



"Wearables represent one of the ultimate edge node sensors for the Internet of Things and holds tremendous promise for equipment makers, service providers and consumers alike," said Rajeev Kumar, director of worldwide marketing and business development for Freescale's microcontrollers business. "This solution is engineered to streamline the design and development of new wearables products. It allows designers and OEMs to go from concept to prototype as quickly as the market is changing."

Sujata Neidig, market development manager for Freescale's i.MX product line, added: "Freescale has been building a range of solutions for many years. However, the last couple of years has seen growing interest in wearable products, including watches, activity trackers and similar devices. With a lot of people beginning to talk about wearable products, we looked to see what we could do to help them develop innovative devices."

Neidig pointed to Freescale's portfolio. "We have a lot of components available; things that customers can start working with. We also have an extensive ecosystem. Our partners started talking to us about doing something and we've followed down that path."

Part of Freescale's component development efforts focus on the creation of low power devices with small form factors. "We've drawn from these products to create a platform that can be used to develop products and to add value," she continued.

But one thing which Freescale was convinced about was avoiding the development of too many reference designs. "The wearables market is still developing," Neidig pointed out, "and there are different verticals in the sector. We didn't want to create a pedometer reference design, for example, because those already exist. We wanted to provide a platform that supported expandability, so developers could add more features."

She said while the WaRP board is a hybrid architecture, it offers the most flexibility and scalability. WaRP board is also said to speed and simplify wearables development by addressing many of the technology challenges, such as connectivity, usability, battery life and miniaturisation.

The platform is built on Freescale's i.MX 6SoloLite, an ARM Cortex-A9 based apps processor, and supports the Android OS. Currently, the board supports Android 4.3, with a standard Android SDK approach adopted to allow software developers to run applications.

WaRP also features Freescale's Xtrinsic MMA9553 turnkey pedometer, the FXOS8700 electronic compass and the Cortex-M0+ based Kinetis KL16 microcontroller. The KL16 handles sensor fusion and wireless charging.

Neidig said the key areas were connectivity and maximising battery life. "Consumers are now used to charging their phones regularly, but they may not be so ready to charge wearables that frequently." Catering for this, Freescale and its partners have integrated wireless charging functionality into WaRP.

She noted that wearable devices may need to alert the user to something; for example, that an email has been received. "That requires more processing power than available from an MCU." The i.MX 6SoloLite is the smallest product in the i.MX range and is said by Neidig to fit the bill. "It was originally designed for use in e-readers, so it has very low power consumption and a small form factor. It fits well with the processing requirements for wearable products."

A further benefit of the i.MX 6SoloLite is that it offers more functionality than an MCU based solution. "In this instance," she said, "it's running the Android operating system, so developers can add different components and cater for different use cases."

However, Freescale has not produced the reference design single-handedly. WaRP is a result of collaboration between Freescale, Kynetics and Revolution Robotics.
Kynetics has provided the expertise needed to create the platform's software, while Revolution Robotics has developed the hardware. When Freescale decided to target this market, it realised it couldn't do it alone and looked to its ecosystem for suitable partners. "We looked at seven or eight companies before deciding to work with Revolution Robotics and Kynetics," Neidig said. "Both have been involved in designing products for the wearables market, as well as for healthcare applications."

Another important design criterion for WaRP is useability. "There are devices on the market," Neidig noted, "but if they don't help the user to do something better or give them something to act on, they just become another unused product. As the market for wearable devices evolves, such products will go from being single to multiple function. When that happens, consumers will get tired of having 10 devices to do 10 things."

WaRP is not a turnkey solution; it's a platform that can be used to develop an end product. "That could be anything from a smart watch to a product targeted at the medical market," Neidig offered.

Initially, WaRP is being supplied as a two board platform; the main board houses the application processor, an accelerometer and a magnetometer. A daughter board allows sensor aggregation and wireless charging.

The hybrid approach allows the i.MX 6SoloLite to be turned on when communication is needed or when graphics need to be displayed. But when the i.MX is in deep sleep mode, the MCU monitors sensor data. This method is said to reduce overall power consumption and extend battery life.

However, it is possible that a range of daughter cards might be developed to provide different functionality. "We will be listening to what the community asks for and take the next steps," Neidig concluded.

According to Freescale, WaRP's hardware and software will be open sourced and community driven, with no closed development tools or licensing fees required. Schematics will also be available on the WaRP website (warpboard.org).

Author
Graham Pitcher

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