Qualcomm Plans New Wearable Chip, Opens Industry Forum


Just a few weeks after Google and Samsung revealed their collaborative Wear software platform, Qualcomm has announced the Wearables Ecosystem Accelerator program, through which it aims to bring together hardware and software companies working on wearable devices and help speed up the launch of new products.

Combined, these are significant steps forward in the effort to make smartwatches that truly compete with the Apple Watch, and other exciting wearables too. Digital Trends spoke to Qualcomm’s Director of Product Marketing for Wearables, Ally Choi, about the program, Qualcomm’s major plans for the future of Snapdragon Wear chips, and how kids and seniors are surprisingly instrumental in driving wearable innovation.

Forum for innovation

“We are initiating the Wearables Ecosystem program to accelerate growth in the wearables space,” Choi explained.

The Ecosystem Accelerator program will be made up of companies developing products and services around the Snapdragon Wear platform, which is primarily used in smartwatches, and ranges from hardware manufacturers and network operators to software companies. It’s just one part of a big push into wearables for Qualcomm, and Choi talked about the reasons why it has taken this route.

“It’s going to take the ecosystem to accelerate growth. We wanted to bring everyone together to build and deliver the best user experiences. With that spirit, the Wearables Ecosystem Accelerator program will provide a forum where all the players share innovations, and work together.”

Wearables were very popular in 2020, with a 28% growth according to IDC research compared to 2019, and this has not escaped Qualcomm’s notice.

“We saw exponential growth in the wearables space last year,” Choi told Digital Trends, “and that trend continues to be the case.” She revealed Qualcomm shipped one Snapdragon Wear unit every 20 seconds, for a total of 40 million units, to illustrate how it has benefitted from this increase in attention.

A 5G future

Qualcomm’s not just going to put these companies in a room and hope for the best. It has a vision for the near-future of wearables, which Choi explained in detail. Today’s varied smartwatches can carry out a number of functions and are built to appeal to different people. But what’s next?

A man engaging with Google Assistant on the TicWatch C2 Plus.
Google Assistant on the TicWatch C2 Plus Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

“Watches will serve as your personal concierge, providing the best tailored experience.” Choi said about the future. “Tech evolution will enable longer battery life when you interact with the watch a lot. In this interactive mode, we expect about five-plus days of usage, or [in another, less interactive mode] weeks of battery life. That’s how we will comfortably use a watch over a longer period of time. Different connectivity options will continue, and 5G definitely will come along.”

Given what we have now — two days battery life at best, and 4G on some smartwatches — nearly a week’s worth of battery life and 5G connectivity sounds like technology that’s still some time away. Choi agreed it won’t happen tomorrow.

“You should look at it as a future road map. We can’t comment on when 5G will come on a watch, but we are embracing the next level of connectivity. It’s the future we are working towards. In terms of the battery, we are bringing in different ways to achieve this goal, and it’s always at the top of where Qualcomm’s investment is focused. We have a line of sight to achieve it.”

New Snapdragon Wear platform

While the Wearables Ecosystem Accelerator program will undoubtedly examine these new directions, what’s Qualcomm doing to make it all technically possible? It’s changing the Snapdragon Wear platform completely.

“We are making a significant investment in our wearables platform. The next generation [Snapdragon Wear] will have a new ground-up design to serve Wear smartwatches, Android Open Source Project (AOSP) wearables, and the next Real Time Operating System (RTOS) wearables. It’s taking more than five times the investment compared to what we have done so far. We are committed, we are making a significant investment, and we have big things underway.”

It’s a huge step. The most recent Snapdragon Wear 4100 platform found in a limited number of smartwatches is still a revamped version of the old Snapdragon 3100 platform, which itself was based on the Snapdragon Wear 2100, which evolved from chips used in smartphones. Qualcomm’s effectively throwing everything out and starting again with this next-generation platform.

Segmentation

It’s exciting news, especially as smartwatch performance hasn’t drastically altered for a while, despite the Snapdragon Wear 4100 generally improving the smartwatch experience. Interestingly it seems a lot of wearable innovation is happening outside the consumer space, and understanding it is crucial to seeing how the wearables potentially powered by the next-gen Snapdragon Wear chip we may buy in the near future may change from those we see today.

The Verizon GizmoWatch for kids.
The Verizon GizmoWatch for kids used the Snapdragon 2100 chip.

“What we see is the market segmenting,” Choi said. She explained how smartwatches for kids, seniors, the enterprise, and even pets are arguably more innovative than others, and looking at them more closely and observing trends in the space, shows what the future may hold for more mainstream products.

“Today, the kids smartwatch is pretty much a stand-alone device, it serves as a primary communication device that also gives peace of mind for the family,” she explained. At the other end of the age range, seniors are also transitioning away from traditional non-smart phones and towards smartwatches.

“This new form factor provides more opportunities,” Choi continued. “It’s hands-free, always with you, provides safety and security, and is connected to additional support services, plus it can be integrated with health services. The enterprise is also adopting wearables rapidly, where hands-free use increases productivity and efficiency. Today, these devices are mostly Wi-Fi connected, but a 4G and tomorrow a 5G connection will add mobility and enable new possibilities for always-connected employees. Also, 4G makes pet trackers make sense. You can track your pet, any time, all the time. We’re seeing them integrate into the growing pet ecosystem, and we’ll see new use cases like health and wellness sensing and behavior monitoring in addition to just tracking.”

Pushing consumer tech

Choi explained how these segments, which could be considered niche, may end up driving technology in the more mainstream consumer wearables space.

“This hyper-segmentation, with each segment driving different use cases, are not only driving growth but also complementing each other. For example, the camera was first introduced on the kid’s smartwatch because of its social and entertainment aspects. What’s interesting is now we’ve figured out how to integrate a 13-megapixel, power-optimized camera on a watch, we are seeing cameras being adopted on senior and enterprise watches in their own way. For example, for seniors, the camera is adding security to fall detection. The camera kicks in and sees the surroundings to make sure it’s a true fall. In enterprise, the camera is used for product scanning. They are evolving in their own way. By driving new use cases, the segmentation across different categories is definitely driving faster adoption of new technology.”

The question then becomes, do we really want a camera on a smartwatch? They haven’t taken off when introduced in the past, after all, and a small smartwatch battery powering a 5G connection sounds like a recipe for multiple visits to the battery charger. Choi’s response shows Qualcomm won’t specifically be pushing these features, especially if they don’t add a benefit.

“It’s more about use cases than technology. When we talk about the camera providing more security for seniors, it starts to make sense. It’s all about coming up with new use cases that make sense, and once it’s more seamlessly integrated into a device, and it works well, then that’s when wider adoption will emerge.”

These features are only examples of where niche wearables are innovating beyond a normal smartwatch today. What’s exciting is Qualcomm’s Wearables Ecosystem Accelerator program is the ideal breeding ground for the new ideas and features Choi mentions that have not yet considered. The thing is, they may end up starting life on a pet tracker or a wearable designed for long-distance truck drivers.

Timeframes

While it hasn’t launched a new product just yet, Qualcomm’s announcement indicates it’s more interested in encouraging companies to come up with hardware and software befitting of its new platform, while its understanding of the wider wearables market shows the massive investment should be money well spent.

Qualcomm will hold the first Wearables Ecosystem Accelerator summit in the fall, but what about the next generation Snapdragon Wear chip?

“You can expect an update next year, but of course building a ground-up design takes more than a year,” Choi said. When asked if the new platform would help introduce longer battery life and 5G on wearables, she replied, “The key pillars, the priority items, are those on the future road map.”

It seems wearables, smartwatches in particular, are on the cusp of a considerable transformation, something that has been a long time coming, and we may have the kids and seniors to thank for it.

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