Qualcomm's Toq smart watchQualcomm

Chip makers see opportunities in hot wearable-computer market

Chip makers are responding to the hot wearable-computer trend with new processor designs as they also seize the opportunity to breathe life into existing chip technologies that previously failed to catch hold.

A number of chip makers are using the IFA trade show in Berlin this week as the latest venue for announcing new chipsets and wearable computers. Texas Instruments on Thursday announced a power-efficient projector chipset that could fit into wearable computers. In an unexpected move, Qualcomm on Wednesday announced a smartwatch called Toq, the same day that Samsung, which makes its own chips, introduced its Galaxy Gear smartwatch.

Toq, which will be out in the fourth quarter, is a way for Qualcomm to show off its latest MEMS (microelectromechanical systems) and screen technologies. The highlight of the smartphone is the Mirasol display, which is considered more power-efficient than other screen technologies such as LED and OLED. Mirasol shares characteristics of electronic-ink screens found on e-readers as the screen does not glare in sunlight.

The smartwatch also will use Qualcomm sensors, wireless recharging circuitry and homegrown Bluetooth technology to connect to speakers and smartphones.

The Toq smartwatch has a 1.55-inch diagonal screen and weighs just over 3 ounces. It will offer “days” of battery life, according to Qualcomm, though a spokesperson did not provide a specific number. The smartwatch will work with smartphones running on Android 4.0.3 and above to play music and send notifications appearing on the mobile device.

Texas Instrument’s DLP Pico 0.2-inch TRP chipset can fit into glasses, watches,  or mobile devices, and projects images at a resolution of 640 by 360 pixels to screens or augmented reality interfaces. The chipset offers twice the resolution of its predecessor, has double the brightness, and uses 50 percent less power, according to the company. The new chipset uses the same MEMS technology that is in TI’s highest-resolution projector technology, according to the company.

Samsung Galaxy Gear Smartwatch
Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatch

Wearable devices present an opportunity for chip makers to use technologies that may have not been successful to date, said Jim McGregor, principal analyst at Tirias Research.

Qualcomm’s Mirasol display was not successful in tablets and e-readers, but works well in smartwatches with its low-power features. Also, Qualcomm’s WiPower wireless charging and Bluetooth technologies get rid of ports, McGregor said.

“More than anything, the market has a lot of experimentation,” McGregor said. “You need to get out there and show you can help others.”

What's next?

The next step for chip makers is to reduce power consumption and the silicon footprint. As an example, McGregor said that digital signal processors, which are found in mobile devices to run specific tasks, could ultimately replace low-power CPUs in wearable products.

Reduction of component size is a priority for Google as it tries to bring a longer battery life to Google Glass, while making the wearable computer look more natural.

Google Glass runs on a dual-core ARM processor, but one challenge is to reduce power consumption when processing video, said Babak Parviz, founder and head of the Google Glass project at Google said in a speech last week at the Hot Chips conference in Stanford, California.

“What we have today is a good solid first step, but not enough especially for video processing. Because the more this platform is successful, we’re going to be collecting more video,” Parviz said.

Another potential application for wearable devices is the “Internet of things,” a term used to describe data-gathering instruments with embedded processors that transmit small bits of information to larger pools of data. TI and Qualcomm develop such processors using designs from ARM, which is digging deeper into the embedded space.

As ARM looks toward the future, the embedded space, including wearables and the so-called “Internet of things,” represents a tremendous growth opportunity, said Noel Hurley, vice president of marketing and strategy at ARM, in an interview earlier this week.

“The Internet of things does democratize electronics in some ways. There’s a new fantastic range of microcontrollers. You can do an awful lot with 32-bit microcontrollers now,” Hurley said.

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