Reliable Wireless Connectivity for Wearables: A Must-Have for Next-Gen Device Manufacturers

By Richard McKaySeptember 12, 2016

With the smartphone revolution already in the late innings, it’s the wearable device that’s the new consumer favorite. And why not? Wearables have applications in a wide range of industries, including health and medicine, fitness, education, gaming, music, and more — especially in the brave new ‘hyper-connected’ world. Developed to work in sync with smartphones, these devices leverage short and long-range gateway connectivity to cloud-based applications.

Wearable Types and Connectivity Options

Broadly classified as IoT wearables, the segment is made up of devices like smartwatches, wristbands, Bluetooth headsets, sports watches, chest straps, head-mounted gaming displays, and smart garments. As reported by Gartner, the wearable market will experience an increase of 18.4% from 2015, selling almost 274.6 million devices by the end of this year.

Smart wearables are motivated by high-end technology, which demands improved wireless connectivity, application-specific user interfaces, durability, advanced sensors, and analytics. For developers and manufacturers of wearable devices, the choice of connectivity options for their products is critical and can often turn out to be a major differentiator. Let’s discuss some of the most common wireless connectivity options available for wearable makers.

WiFi

A household name now, it strikes as the most common term when people think of internet connectivity. Offering enhanced security levels, and high-speed data transfer rates, Wi-Fi tops the list of wireless connectivity technologies available in today. Featuring antennas as small as 2mm x 5mm, Wi-Fi is optimized to provide a considerably large operating range. However, the high operating range often hits back adversely by consuming more battery of the device, shortening the battery life. Seemingly fluid, the technology integrates complex features that require external host controllers, alongside a dedicated radio controller, in order to leverage wireless connectivity functionalities.

Bluetooth

Successfully marking its presence in the wireless connectivity scene for years now, Bluetooth is perhaps the most popular way to connect a device with a smartphone. Bluetooth incorporates power management mechanisms, a microprocessor, memory, and a radio to provide wireless connectivity solutions to a varied range of devices like speakers, keyboards, mouse, wireless headsets, and a host of system-on-chip (SoC) products from various leading vendors. Bluetooth is a frontrunner in wireless technology, which minimizes the chip requirements to offer reliable connectivity solutions.

Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE)

The newest addition to the Bluetooth family, Bluetooth Low Energy, or BLE, is a low-energy connectivity module that allows transmitters to remain idle for extended periods. This enables significant power efficiency, and longer battery runtime. Typically designed for SoC devices, BLE can be four to six times lower in terms of size, as well as cost, in comparison to a Wi-Fi solution. Examples of devices running on BLE technology can be an audio headset, wrist bracelet body monitor, or an insulin pump.

ZigBee

The ZigBee protocol has been co-developed by a consortium known as the ZigBee Alliance. More than 300 semiconductor manufacturers, OEMs, technology companies, and service providers constitute the ZigBee Alliance membership. Characterized by remarkable security and improved wireless network architectures, ZigBee has been specially designed to provide an easy-to-use wireless solution to IoT devices. Operating on the IEEE 802.15.4 physical radio specification for unlicensed bands like 2.4 GHz, 900 MHz, and 868 MHz, ZigBee address the key connectivity issues of low-cost, low-power, wireless M2M networks.

Each wireless connectivity option has its own set of merits and demerits. It is extremely crucial for wearable manufacturers to decide and integrate the most trusted connectivity solution to ensure optimized performance of their devices.