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.

Final thoughts

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.