Keeping up with the excitement and expectations that wearable technology is bringing to the consumer and enterprise mobility markets is not without its challenges. Time to market is key and the newness of wearables brings with it the inevitable technology knowledge gaps within engineering, development and product management groups.
I spoke with Robert Thompson, i.MX business development manager for Freescale Semiconductor, about the launch of WaRPboard, a low cost (Freescale is setting the initial price at $149) wearable reference platform that's sure to spur even more wearable development in the market. The WaRPboard is in final stages of development and will be available for purchase in Q2 2014.
Origins of WaRPboard
Thompson traces the origins of WaRPboard to the market still trying to get their arms around the wearable category.
When I mentioned to Thompson that I'm still trying to understand the wearables category, Thompson responded, "I think that's true for everybody. Even the people who would claim they are in the wearable industry. I don't think very few people would claim they understand the ingredients to be successful in this category right now. I think it's wide open. The usage models are all undefined. The usage models that will resonate with customers are unclear."
He adds, "And so you are seeing a lot of experimentation and innovation from both established companies all the way through to companies that are startups."
"So you are seeing a wide open market with a lot of one-off experimentations," according to Thompson. "People are putting things out there and see what resonates and quickly going back to the drawing board and coming out with new products. And, that was really our motivation for the WaRPboard."
"Freescale works as a semiconductor company in many different markets: automotive, consumer, or networking," explains Thompson. "What we started seeing about 18 months ago was a lot of our current customers both in the consumer space and companies you wouldn't think of as consumer companies such as healthcare companies designing or coming to us and saying we want to use your part in this wearable product."
When Freescale further questioned their customers on such requests, Thompson said they often got vague answers.
"We found that a lot of projects started and then would kind of stop after three months or they would get very close to go to market and then they wouldn't go to market because the marketing team suddenly decided it wasn't a product they thought they could launch," says Thompson. Freescale saw a very large and undefined market in the wearable market that could benefit from their technology expertise.
He relates, "When you say wearable, wearable is obviously smart watches and activity trackers getting a lot of the attention right now. But if you really look at the wearable market its everything from sports and fitness to healthcare and wellness to entertainment from smart watches and smart glasses and then you have the industrial and military including smart clothing which is really evolving. It's a wide open market."
WaRPboard: A reference design for a wide customer base
Freescale saw the need for an offering such as WaRPboard as a solution for companies coming into the wearable space that didn't have a lot of hardware and software experience in-house to start a wearable technology development project from scratch.
The WaRPboard is a reference design – not a finished product. Thompson states, "We are giving you a board, Android OS for you to test concepts and ideas of what might work." As a reference design, the WaRPboard isn't a finished product and it doesn't even have a casing. It's not a watch. It's not an activity tracker. It could be the start of either wearable device depending on your development goals. Figure A is a picture of the WaRPboard:
"If we could put together a board and a software package that was focused on obviously being small from a form factor standpoint and really deliver battery life that would be applicable to most usage models," says Thompson. "We gave them a range of connectivity options from Wi-Fi down to Bluetooth low energy and then from a software stand point we gave them an operating system with a UI that would enables them to download applications in the Android framework.
Thompson positions the WaRPboard between the Qualcomm Toq and Raspberry Pi. He adds, "We aren't assuming you are not going to go to market with every component chosen and you are going to lay out the board exactly as we have as Qualcomm is suggesting with the Toq."
"However, compared to Raspberry Pi, if you do come up with a product idea and you want to change for example, we've used a Wi-Fi Bluetooth combination module," explains Thompson. "You may decide that you only need Bluetooth for your product and then you can go find a Bluetooth module at a lower cost then the module we've put on the board."
Developers have the option to mix and match components on the board with those available from other manufacturers and still productize the WaRPboard.
According to Thompson, the target customer for the WaRPboard is very broad. The potential customer ranges from an individual to a market or somebody who want to play around with a board and Android. He told me Freescale is seeing interest from start-ups through Tier 1 consumer electronics companies including some who are already in the wearable market and have launched products.
"That's why initially we are pricing it at a $149," Thompson relates. "It's a very low cost board."
"Most big companies, even those with wearables in the market have very little in house expertise on building this range of products," explains Thompson. The lacking expertise includes building a board for a very small form factor and adapting an operating system for a 1.43" screen.
Taking WaRPboard open source for innovation
Freescale Semiconductor is making the WaRPboard open source to help spur innovation and development in the wearable market as quickly as possible. You can go to warpboard.org to download all of the engineering files and operating system royalty free.
I count myself amongst those still trying to get my arms around wearable technologies both as an enterprise mobility writer and technology professional. However, I recognize the potential that the WaRPboard brings to wearable technologies by lowering the barrier of entry for startups and individual developers. I see WaRPboard opening up the wearable category to more innovative developers who could in turn help better define the future of the wearable market.
Will Kelly is a freelance technical writer and analyst currently focusing on enterprise mobility, Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), and the consumerization of IT. He has also written about cloud computing, Big Data, virtualization, project management applications, Google Apps, Microsoft technologies, and online collaboration for TechRepublic and other sites. Will also works as a contract technical writer for clients in the Washington, DC area and nationwide. Follow Will on Twitter: @willkelly.