What's a wearable?

Alix Paultre, Editorial Director, Power Systems Design


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There is an ongoing slow-motion explosion of devices and services for the Internet of Things (IoT), especially in the wearables category. There are a lot of benefits to this as well as a couple of problems, but we will all work it our eventually. The problem, as always, is how do we get there from here?

It is obvious to al now that the term “Internet of Things” is, while reasonably accurate, woefully inadequate to properly describe all of the application spaces it encompasses. Already we are hearing qualifiers like “industrial”, “automotive”, “mil/aero” and “medical” as happens to every application space and its related infrastructure.

This is also happening within the sub-categories within the IoT, as even these are too broad. “Wearables”, for example, is a term that is again both reasonable accurate but woefully inadequate. It is already splitting up into sub-sub categories, each requiring its own protocol and infrastructure within the Cloud to operate as desired. Each sub-app space has different power needs and means of achieving them as well.

The first and largest separation in wearables is the one between consumer and medical. Medical systems have very strict regulations on their power and RF performance, greater and costlier to achieve than consumer products. Power and signal are a common issue in the IoT in general, but solutions satisfactory for your sports heart monitor are completely unacceptable for a pacemaker/defibrillator.

That last sentence opens up another series of layers. Are implantable IoT devices wearables? You carry them with you, right? What about if it is just clipped to the skin with catheters or contacts? What if it is a disposable IoT band-aid? This goes up the ladder, from intramuscular to subdermal to skin-mounted to adhesive and strap-on gadgets to prosthesis and smart clothing.

That crossover between health and fitness exists in other IoT spaces as well. Personal electronics for industrial and other harsh-environment workers need to be more robust and secure than similar systems for campers and hikers. That goes up another level when you start talking about first responders. That heads-up VR system for gaming may not have the resolution or reliability to be used to locate victims in a house fire.

All of these distinctions, however, also provide our industry with a myriad of multiple opportunities to create energy-efficient powered systems to serve them. Each application space demands the best that can be provided for the optimum functionality and cost-effectiveness possible. (A child’s toy may not need as sophisticated an embedded system as a missile system, but some would rather be in a situation with a balky weapon than a balky child.)

This fracturing of the IoT is not only inevitable, it is also highly desirable, for all of the reasons mentioned and more.