A few weeks ago, in a much-anticipated announcement, Apple unveiled its first foray into the wearable electronics market. The swirl of questions and speculation began immediately, as is common for Apple product launches.
But this time, one discussion point stood out to me: Everyone is talking about the watch’s battery life. How long will it last, and can we stand to have yet another device that requires frequent charging?
From what I have read, the Apple Watch’s battery will last for days, and maybe weeks, depending on the number of apps that the user is running. But for most electronic devices, especially in the emerging Internet of Things era, that’s not a very long time. Ubiquitous computing means that you pretty much forget about charging your wearable gadget or the sensor in your home. Think about a smoke detector — 364 days a year, you don’t give a second thought to its battery life.
For a technology industry focused on a new class of emerging devices, battery life is important. It’s hugely, tremendously important. In coming years, the tech industry, and wearable manufacturers in particular, will be focused on battery life to an unprecedented degree. Just not in relation to the devices that require such computing power as the Apple Watch.
To understand why, we must recognize the emerging split in the field of wearable electronics. One branch of wearables includes high bandwidth and high performance components such as smartwatches. These are essentially smartphones that you can wear. Remember that, to some degree, smartphones are simply laptops that can be carried in a pocket and used to make calls. They feature high computing power and complex digital displays. They perform multiple functions, and can be programmed to run apps and software. They also use a lot of battery power.
Whether our culture decides that smartphones can be fashion accessories is beyond my expertise. It would surprise me, however, if the issue of dramatic enhancement in battery life becomes a game-changer here. People have been complaining for years about battery life on their phones. Yet, without fail, each new generation of smartphones features bigger screens, higher power and lower battery life. It seems that, for the time being, the short charge is simply a nuisance. Likewise, I doubt that people who want a smartphone on their wrist will make purchasing decisions based on battery life. At least not yet. These devices are complicated and powerful, and I don’t think consumers are willing to sacrifice performance for a longer charge.
The picture is quite different, however, in the second class of wearables and IoT devices. This category of products is just starting to emerge. It will include a range of wearable devices with a relatively simple purpose: To gather and transmit data. They won’t have screens or perform complex computations. They will have simple sensors, controllers and memory storage capabilities.
What will these devices look like? It’s hard to predict, but companies are actively exploring some pretty amazing possibilities. In addition to bracelets, rings, necklaces, etc., we may see wearable sensors gathering data in our hearts, under our skin, in our lungs, or in tiny cavities like ears and eyes.
This category of wearables is comparable to Internet of Things technology. We are entering an era where sensor devices will collect large amounts of information from the world around us (now projected to be in the trillions of devices). We are hearing about connected homes, where companies like Nest are pioneering a new kind of data-driven infrastructure. Soon we will be implementing connected farms and factories. And not too far off, we’ll have connected bodies.
The ability to continuously listen to the data given off by the human body will drive a revolution in health care. We’ll be able to analyze the spread of disease, monitor important indicators like glucose levels and track overall fitness (we have seen several early pioneers in this last category) — all with a stream of data that is gathered, transmitted and analyzed in real time.
The devices that gather and transmit this data won’t need to perform complex computations — just collect, store, process and share information. If necessary, a central computer will perform the more complicated functions, like giving detailed health analysis or reminding you to take your medication. Daniel Joseph of The App Business argues that the Apple Watch is designed precisely to be this kind of data hub. It may be able to gather data from a range of sources, including other wearable sensors, and offer a clear, integrated picture of your health in real time. In this way, the two emerging categories of wearables may work together to keep us safe and healthy.
However, within the two categories, considerations for battery life and technical specifications are very different. Unlike smartwatches, which are fairly flexible in size and shape, sensor wearables will face extraordinary physical constraints. They will have to fit in tiny places, withstand hostile conditions, and integrate seamlessly with their environment
Above all, they will need to have long battery life. Intravenous or embedded sensors cannot be plugged in or recharged every few days. Many will have to last for months, or even years, on a single charge. This challenge is similar for other IoT ecosystems; imagine thousands of sensors spread across acres of farmland. They can’t run out of battery every few days!
The low-power requirement for IoT and wearable sensors is an enormous challenge for the technology industry, and the success of these systems directly depends on our ability to meet that challenge. This is a game-changer, and it will drive tremendous innovation. Already, companies are exploring ways to power chips via sunlight, human body heat, or even biomechanical motion. Even more amazing breakthroughs are sure to come.
I am eager to see how both branches of wearables electronics evolve. The “wearable smartphone” category is truly exciting, and will drive tremendous innovation. But for these devices, battery life will remain a non-crucial factor — just another thing we love to complain about. I’ll look to the other category — the smaller, simpler wearable sensors — to drive true innovation and progress in engineering the batteries and low-power electronics of tomorrow.
Narbeh Derhacobian is co-founder and CEO of Adesto Technologies, the inventor and market leader of the world’s lowest-power memory solutions. Adesto’s flagship product, CBRAM, is a breakthrough technology platform, enabling low-energy consumption for a new class of connected applications and devices. Derhacobian has more than 17 years of industry experience in working on discrete and embedded memory technologies, and more than 40 granted patents in various areas of semiconductor memories.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.