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Wearable Technology Information

Figure 1: Wearable technology continues to make life more convenient, safer, and more productive. Source: Pixabay

The modern world has seen incredible advancements in technology both in computing power and a reduction in size. Powerful technology is now small enough and energy efficient enough to be worn on our bodies and enable modern life. Wearable technology continues to make life more convenient, safer, and more productive.

Theory of Operation

The term "wearable technology" refers to electronic devices that can be worn on the body, either as an accessory or as part of material used in clothing. Wearable technology has a variety of applications, ranging from health monitoring to entertainment. Wearable technology is more of a platform that enables a vast number of applications. While wearable technology comes in many different forms, some fundamental principles are common:

User Interface and Interaction

Most wearables require some form of user interface, whether it's a screen, buttons, or touch-sensitive areas. The user interface (UI) is designed to be intuitive, given the device's limited size. Some wearables, like smartwatches, leverage haptic feedback (vibrations) to communicate with the user.

Sensors

Many wearables contain sensors to collect data. For instance, fitness trackers might have accelerometers to detect movement, heart rate monitors to track cardiac activity, and even GPS to monitor location. The data from these sensors can then be processed and used to provide feedback or insights to the user.

Connectivity

Wearables often connect to other devices, especially smartphones. This can be done via Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, or other wireless technologies. This connectivity allows wearables to leverage the computational power and storage of other devices, send notifications, and sync data.

Power Management

Given the small size of most wearables, power consumption is a primary concern. Wearables need to be energy efficient, often using low-power chips and algorithms. Many also incorporate energy-saving modes that activate when the device isn't in use.

Data Processing

While some processing can occur on the wearable itself, often data is sent to another device or even a cloud server for more in-depth analysis. This is especially true for devices that collect vast amounts of data, like continuous glucose monitors or sleep trackers.

Software

Wearables require software to function, from the operating system that powers the device to the applications that provide functionality. This software is often optimized for the specific form factor and use case of the wearable.

Comfort and Aesthetics

Since wearables are, by definition, worn, they need to be comfortable and often have an aesthetic appeal. This means that the design and ergonomics of the device are crucial.

Data Security and Privacy

Wearables collect a lot of personal data, so it's essential to ensure that this data is stored and transmitted securely. Users also need to be aware of what data is being collected and have control over how it's used.

Materials and Durability

Wearables, especially those designed for fitness or outdoor activities, need to be durable. They might be water-resistant or even waterproof, resistant to sweat and other bodily fluids, and built to withstand physical shocks.

Customizability and Modularity

Some wearables allow for customizability, whether it's changing the straps on a smartwatch or swapping out components. This can make the device more appealing to a broader range of consumers.

The theory of operation for wearable technology revolves around the integration of hardware, software, and design to create devices that can be comfortably worn while providing specific functionality. As technology continues to advance, wearable devices are expected to become even more integrated into our daily lives, offering a wider range of applications and benefits.

Figure 2: Comfort for the person wearing the device is as important as the performance of the device. Source: Pixabay

Specifications

Specifications for wearable technology vary depending on the type and purpose of the device. However, here are some common specifications that manufacturers and consumers might consider for wearable devices:

Physical Dimensions

Size and weight are incredibly important for wearable devices. A few extra ounces or millimeters can take a piece of wearable tech from comfortable to unusable. Comfort for the person wearing the device is as important as the performance of the device.

Display

Modern displays can be quite advanced and utilize different technologies like OLED, AMOLED, LCD, or e-ink. The size and resolution of the display, usually given as the number of pixels in the display, is critical to ensuring the user can properly interact with the device. Touch capability further enhances the ease of use for the device.

Battery

Common types include li-ion and li-polymer. Battery life, however, can vary greatly from one device to the next. Batteries for wearable technology can typically be charged via wireless charging or USB charging.

Connectivity

Wearable technology can utilize many different protocols to communicate including:

  • Bluetooth
  • Wi-Fi
  • NFC
  • Cellular

These different communication protocols have various tradeoffs between security, data transfer rates, the amount of power required, and the complexity of the required radios.

Sensors

Almost any kind of wearable technology will have sensors onboard to gather data for processing. Common sensors and their uses include:

  • Accelerometer: For movement detection
  • Gyroscope: To measure orientation
  • Heart rate monitor: To measure the user's heart rate
  • GPS: For location tracking
  • Ambient light sensor: To adjust screen brightness
  • Barometer: For altitude and weather prediction
  • Temperature sensor: To monitor environmental or body temperature
  • Other specialized sensors depending on the device, such as blood oxygen sensors and glucose monitors

Computing Specs

In many ways, wearable technology is all based on small computers. The computing specifications for these devices help to demonstrate the true capabilities of the devices. Common specs include:

  • RAM: The amount of random access memory
  • Storage: How much internal storage the device has for apps and data
  • Processor type and speed: The chip or CPU type and speed measured in GHz

Operating System and Software

The operating system the device uses is important to ensure it will work well with any other needed devices. The software platform can vary including Wear OS, watchOS, Tizen, and many others. Not all wearable technology is compatible with all smartphones. It is important to check for compatibility. This compatibility is also important for determining the range of applications supported by the wearable.

Durability and Resistance

Wearable technology can see a lot of abuse depending on the device and the intended application. The material of the device and its components is very important. Water and shock resistance are also critical parameters to be aware of.

When choosing or evaluating wearable technology, it's essential to consider these specifications in the context of the intended use and individual preferences. For instance, an athlete might prioritize a robust set of sensors and long battery life, while a casual user might be more interested in aesthetics and customizability.

Figure 3: Apple technology. Source: Pixabay

Types

Wearable technology has proliferated across various domains, offering diverse functionalities. Here are some popular types of wearable devices:

Smartwatches

These are like mini-computers worn on the wrist. They can tell the time, of course, but also offer various smart features such as notifications, fitness tracking, and even mobile payment capabilities. Examples include the Apple Watch, Samsung Galaxy Watch, and Garmin smartwatches.

Fitness Trackers

Devices primarily focused on monitoring and tracking physical activities and health metrics. They can measure steps, distance, calories burned, heart rate, and more. Brands like Fitbit and Jawbone UP have popularized this category.

Sports and Health Monitors

These are specialized devices for athletes or those with medical needs. Examples include:

  • GPS running watches for tracking routes and performance
  • Cycling computers for bikers
  • Continuous glucose monitors for diabetics
  • Head-mounted displays (HMD)

Virtual Reality (VR) Headsets

Devices that offer immersive experiences by projecting a simulated environment. Examples are the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and PlayStation VR.

Augmented Reality (AR) Glasses

These overlay digital information on the real world. Examples include Google Glass and Microsoft's HoloLens.

Mixed Reality (MR) Headsets

These combine elements of both VR and AR. MR headsets attempt to obtain the benefits of VR and AR while reducing many of the less desirable aspects.

Smart Eyewear

These are regular glasses but with added tech features, such as the ability to display notifications, take photos, or navigate. Examples include Snapchat Spectacles and Focals by North.

Smart Clothing

Apparel integrated with sensors or other technologies to provide added functionality. This category includes:

  • Smart shirts/jackets with built-in sensors to monitor vital signs or body temperature
  • Smart shoes that can track steps or provide haptic feedback for navigation
  • Wearable cameras that can be attached to clothing or worn on the body to capture photos and videos from a first-person perspective

Hearables

Audio-focused wearables including:

  • Smart earbuds that can track fitness metrics or offer real-time language translation
  • Hearing aids with added features like Bluetooth streaming

Figure 4: The Quora Ring. Source: Tpnkl/CC BY-SA 4.0

Smart Jewelry

Even jewelry can have technology embedded. Smart jewelry includes rings, bracelets, and necklaces with integrated technology. They can track fitness, send notifications, or even act as personal safety devices.

Implantables

These are devices that are surgically implanted into the human body. Examples include:

  • Microchip implants used for identification or access control
  • Advanced medical devices such as pacemakers with wireless connectivity
  • Wearable patches which are thin, flexible devices that stick to the skin and can deliver medicine, monitor health metrics, or track UV exposure

Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCIs)

Wearable devices that can read brainwave patterns. While still in the early stages, they have potential applications in health, gaming, and other areas.

Sleep Trackers

Devices specifically designed to monitor sleep patterns and quality, often in the form of a wearable band or a bed-based sensor pad.

This list is by no means exhaustive, as the field of wearable technology is continuously evolving. As tech advancements continue, we can expect to see even more innovative wearables that cater to diverse needs and applications.

Figure 5: Wearable technology offers a wide array of features. Source: Peter H Charlton/CC BY-SA 4.0

Features

Wearable technology offers a wide array of features, driven by the convergence of hardware, software, and data analytics. Here are some common features found in various wearable devices:

Notifications

Many wearables can relay notifications from a paired smartphone, allowing users to view messages, emails, and app alerts directly on their device.

Fitness Tracking

Fitness tracking is a broad category and wearable technology can tackle many different aspects under the umbrella of fitness tracking. Common parameters include:

  • Step counting to monitor the number of steps taken throughout the day
  • Distance tracking to measure the distance traveled during activities like walking, running, or cycling
  • Calorie burn estimation of the number of calories burned based on activity and personal metrics

Health Monitoring

Similar to fitness tracking, many parameters can be monitored under the category of health monitoring. Many of these categories also overlap with fitness tracking to provide a more complete picture. Common parameters include:

  • Heart rate monitoring that tracks the user's heart rate in real-time
  • Sleep monitoring to analyze sleep patterns and quality
  • Blood oxygen level monitoring to measure the oxygen saturation in the blood, useful for fitness and health insights
  • Stress monitoring to provide insights into the user's stress levels
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG) monitoring is available in some advanced wearables. These devices can record an electrocardiogram, which may help detect irregular heart rhythms
  • GPS and location services for tracking location, which is especially useful for outdoor activities like running or hiking

Music and Media Control

Users can control music playback, volume, and other media functions directly from their wearable device.

Communication

Some advanced wearables allow users to answer calls, send messages, or even use voice assistants directly from the device.

Mobile Payments

Devices with near field communication (NFC) can facilitate contactless payments.

Customizable Interfaces

Many wearables allow users to change the display, watch faces, or interfaces to suit their preferences.

Gesture and Motion Control

Some wearables can recognize specific gestures or movements and respond accordingly.

Safety Features

Many devices are capable of providing enhanced safety for the user. Some common safety features include:

  • Fall detection that recognizes when a user has taken a hard fall and sends alerts or notifications
  • Emergency SOS that allows users to quickly call for help in emergency situations

The specific features a wearable offers will depend on its type and intended use. As technology continues to advance, we can expect even more innovative features to emerge in the wearable tech space.

Figure 6: Smartwatches. Source: Ka Kit Pang/CC BY 3.0

Manufacture

Manufacturing wearable technology is a complex process that involves a combination of electronic engineering, material science, software development, and design principles. The exact manufacturing steps can vary depending on the specific wearable device, but the general process usually includes the following stages:

  • Conceptualization and design
  • Component selection
  • PCB design, fabrication, and assembly
  • Software development
  • Enclosure and physical design
  • Quality control and testing
  • Final assembly

Designing wearable technology first starts with understanding the target audience, intended use, and desired features. Basic models of the device can be prototyped to validate the design and functionality. Based on feedback from the prototype, the design and functionalities are refined.

With a basic design and functionality outlined, components must then be sourced that achieves these functions economically. The necessary components are identified and sourced, such as sensors, processors, batteries, displays, and other electronics. Compatibility and efficiency between components must be ensured at this stage.

With components selected and sourced, the circuit design for the wearable can be laid out. The design must optimize for size and power consumption. After design, the physical boards are produced.

The fabs are then ready to be populated with components. Components are mounted onto the PCBs using soldering techniques. This could involve surface mount technology (SMT) or through-hole techniques depending on the components. After assembly, testing ensures that the assembled electronics function correctly.

The physical components must have software that controls their behavior. The firmware must be developed that runs on the wearable device itself. Applications can be created to provide additional functionalities, either on the wearable or on paired devices (like smartphones). Integration between hardware and software components is essential to everything working smoothly.

The completed PCBA must be housed in a comfortable but protective enclosure. Material selection is required to choose materials for the wearable's body, straps, or enclosures. Considerations include durability, comfort, aesthetics, and weight. After material selection, the physical components must be produced using techniques like injection molding. The electronics can then be assembled into the physical design.

No design is complete without testing. Functional testing ensures that all features of the wearable work as intended. Durability testing exposes the wearable to conditions like water, dust, and physical stress to ensure it meets durability standards. Safety testing ensures that the wearable is safe for users, especially concerning radiation, heat, and electrical safety.

All parts of the wearable, including straps or other accessories, must then be assembled together. Finally, the wearable must be packaged together with all parts including manuals, chargers, and other necessary items.

Figure 7: Google Glass. Source: Public domain

Applications

Wearable technology has found applications in various domains due to its ability to seamlessly integrate with the user's daily activities and provide real-time data or augment functionalities. Here are some of the prominent applications of wearable technology:

Health and Fitness

One of the earliest fields to adopt wearable technology has been health and fitness. Wearable technology adds value to this field in many ways including:

  • Activity tracking like monitoring steps, distance, and calories burned
  • Heart rate monitoring to provide real-time tracking of heart rate during daily activities and workouts
  • Sleep analysis to understand sleep patterns and quality
  • Sports training to provide insights to athletes to optimize their training and performance
  • Rehabilitation to assist in the recovery process after injuries or surgeries
  • Continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) for diabetics and individuals to track their blood sugar levels
  • ECG monitoring to detect irregularities in heart rhythms
  • Remote patient monitoring to allow healthcare professionals to monitor patients without in-person visits
  • Medication reminders to alert users when it's time to take their medications

Entertainment and Media

Not to be overshadowed by the health and fitness space, entertainment and media have seen great adoption of wearable technology. Some examples include:

  • VR: Immersive experiences for gaming, movies, or simulations
  • AR: Overlaying digital content on the real world, used in gaming, navigation, and more
  • Social media interaction: Capturing and sharing content on platforms like Snapchat via devices like Spectacles

Communication

In an ever-connected world, being able to communicate via a wearable device simply makes a great deal of sense. Smartwatches make it easy to receive notifications, make calls, and send messages quickly. Smart glasses also make video calls and viewing notifications easy and discreet.

Navigation and Travel

Wearable technology helps to make the whole world just a bit smaller. GPS-enabled wearables provide directions and location tracking in all corners of the world. Earbuds are able to provide real-time language translation for travelers, enabling communication between all types of people.

Industry

Workers in fields like logistics, manufacturing, or healthcare can access information without using their hands while reminders and to-do lists on smartwatches can help distribute information. Workplace training using VR or AR for training simulations can help better skill workers. Access to VR and AR can also help simulate plans on a construction site to improve the speed and quality of projects.

These are just a few applications, and as wearable technology continues to evolve, it's likely that we'll see it being applied in even more innovative ways across various sectors.

Figure 8: Smartwatch. Source: Pixabay

Standards

Standards for wearable technology are established to ensure the safety, compatibility, performance, and interoperability of wearable devices. These standards touch upon various aspects, including design, manufacturing, testing, and data handling. While some standards are general and can apply to many types of electronic devices, others are specific to wearables.

Here are some of the key standards and areas of standardization relevant to wearable technology:

  • IEC/UL 62368-1 — The Standard for Audio/Visual, Information and Communication Technology Equipment
  • Medical device safety — IEC 60601-1, IEC 60601-1-11
  • EMC — IEC 60601-1-2 (or equivalent for nonmedical applications)
  • Usability — IEC 60601-1-6 (or equivalent for nonmedical applications)
  • Biocompatibility — ISO 10993
  • Software cybersecurity — ANSI/CAN/UL 2900, the Standard for Software Cybersecurity for Network-Connectable Products
  • Software Lifecycle Process — ISO 62304
  • SAR for wireless communication devices in EU — EN 50566, EN 50360, EN 62209-1, EN 62209-2, EN 62311, EN 62479
  • AR/VR/MR equipment — ANSI/CAN/UL 8400, the Standard for Safety for Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality and Mixed Reality Technology Equipment

Figure 9: Android smartwatch. Source: Public domain

These standards all focus on different aspects but encompass many of the following topics:

Safety Standards

Wearable technology must be safe, first and foremost. Common areas where safety is emphasized include:

  • Electromagnetic compatibility (EMC): Ensures that the wearable does not emit radiation that could interfere with other devices and is not susceptible to interference itself.
  • Biocompatibility: Especially for wearables that have close contact with the skin or are implanted, materials should not cause allergic reactions or other adverse biological responses.
  • Battery safety: Standards related to battery design, performance, and disposal to prevent issues like overheating or explosions.

Data Privacy and Security

Wearables often collect personal data, so standards related to data encryption, storage, and transmission are crucial. Many standards are related to user consent and data sharing.

Interoperability and Compatibility

For devices to work well, standards are needed to ensure that wearables can effectively communicate with other devices, platforms, or systems. Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, NFC, and other connectivity standards provide common protocols that devices can adhere to.

Performance and Reliability

Some standards outline the expected performance of sensors, displays, and other components. Durability is an important consideration, especially for wearables meant for rugged environments or sports, and these standards help to ensure devices perform as expected.

Health and Medical Standards

For wearables intended for medical use, there are stringent standards and regulations ensuring their accuracy, reliability, and safety. For example, in the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has guidelines for medical devices, including certain wearables.

Organizations like the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), ASTM International, and national regulatory bodies often develop and oversee these standards. Manufacturers and developers of wearable technology should be aware of and comply with the relevant standards, both for the safety of the end-users and for legal and marketability reasons.

References

Howstuffworks—How Wearable Technology Works

Toptal—Wearable Technology: How and Why It Works

GCFGlobal—What is Wearable Technology?

UL—Keeping Wearable Technology Safe at Any Speed

Related Information

Electronics360—Making wearable electronics smarter

GlobalSpec—Seaweed-based electronic skin can track human vital signs


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