It is still early days for the Internet of Things (IoT) and wearable devices, but everybody is confident about these being the next big wave, just like wireless data was 15 years ago. Every company has an IoT booth at expos, an IoT section on their website, and a dedicated IoT team as well. Marc Naddell, vice president of ecosystems at MediaTek speaks to Dilin Anand of EFY about what is essential to ride this wave…
Makers, the new heroes
Do you think makers and hobbyists are important, on the consumer side of the IoT?
The global maker movement is integral for the IoT to flourish. Makers and traditional developers are our prime targets, as well as hobbyists and partners of every kind. With the abundance of 3D printing, we believe that developers who know how to create applications and are interested enough to pursue their dreams will be able to easily prototype their products. We certainly encourage the ones who are really pushing the envelope in terms of experimentation, innovation, trying to do new things, invent new categories – that’s the primary target.
How do you support such makers or start-ups that are perhaps still not connected to the right support mechanisms for their designs?
We are going to create hardware development kits (HDK) either with a third party, or do it directly through our new MediaTek Labs program. As part of the free membership, we also provide support; when the developer’s design is closing completion, they need to have a prototype created, or contact an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) to produce the first batch for sale. We are prepared to provide the right level of support around the HDK and software development kit (SDK).
Contending with the ‘physical’ world
What change has the IoT revolution brought about, which makes the development of IoT apps different from the experience of building apps half a decade ago?
The challenge is that it’s a physical plate, compared to the prior paradigm where you were making an app for a device the consumer already had in his hand. In essence, what we had was a laptop downloading a free SDK, creating an app and going through a digital marketplace to reach the consumers. The consumers in the previous case were already bearing the cost of buying the device, and were already paying for the subscriptions to operators, and the developers in many cases already had a laptop access. Therefore the barriers were quite small. It was just an access to a laptop, downloading an SDK, learning how to code, lot of documentation, and so on.
So, how is the current scenario different, and how can developers overcome the new challenges?
In contrast to the apps paradigm, this IoT market is going to be fragmented. Developers are going to have to be creative, and have a vision that includes creating a real device. Secondly, it is a physical world. So, in many cases we need access to a workshop, a 3D printer or a HDK. It is going to require a more integral skill-set. In the old paradigm, we could often see an app developer creating a new market. In the new paradigm, the task will probably involve a small team of developers; one would focus on user experience, another on creating the architecture and writing the reports, and another would be bothered about the physical components – the look and the feel, ruggedness, materials, packaging, etc. In the next 12-18 months, the physical world is something the developers have to contend with, unlike ten years ago, when it was purely digital.
In this situation, what would be the best ‘enabler’ a developer could have?
It is all being enabled by the emerging popularity of 3D printers. In fact, consumers who used to buy very expensive laptops are now thinking about buying 3D printers. It has highly enabled its users to prototype and build things at home. Ten years ago, you had to overcome barriers in the manufacturing world if you wanted to create a device, compared to just writing an app and creating a physical model now.
An emerging ecosystem
What do you have to say about the numerous design communities that are popping up all over the world?
I see the emergence of new kinds of players who facilitate the developers. As an example, look at the new varieties of incubators available in the market. Perhaps the business models which differentiate them could be in the formation of companies that will exist to support developers, provide workshop areas and 3D printing, funding elements and business models, and access to customers, expertise and support. I think what is going to help is having more support from within the ecosystem. What I feel is, the model is moving towards aggregating support along with venture capitalists, and looking for people who have ideas and need a place to create it.
What role does MediaTek play in this ecosystem?
We try to maintain our position in the value chain in the ecosystem. You don’t see us aggressively integrating vertically up or down the stack. We pretty much stick with creating system-on-chips (SoCs) and enabling development for our customers or partners. We don’t want to compete with our partners; they are very valuable in our business model; and we don’t want to compete with our customers either. This is a very strong element in our strategy; to leverage partners who mutually benefit and enable more innovation and further development of the market.
Overall, we aim to be an enabler, both of the maker movement and the developers within it, as much as for the end users who can now achieve more with their new device. This directly maps to our company vision to enable the creation of high-performing, affordable technology and put it in the hands of people everywhere, whereby both the creators and consumers can be what we call, an Everyday Genius.
Enabling a new generation of devices
We’ve seen various types of wearables in the market. Is there some method of classifying these?
We see the wearable segment as consisting of three tiers. It starts with what we refer to as the single application tier, above which is the simple application tier, and at the top is the rich application tier.
You can think of the traditional and existing fitness band category as being in the single tier. The second tier can have something like a companion-oriented smart watch or companion-style smart glass, or to be even more specific, something like a fitness band with a user interface. A more evolved smart watch or wearable device, such as the Google Glass platform, would go into the rich application tier.
What solutions are available to engineers who are interested in developing a product for any of these tiers?
In the single application tier, the solutions available are mainly microcontroller units (MCUs). You need simple processing, low cost, and just a single functionality. The second tier consists of anything that is upgradable or which can have apps downloaded into it using the parent device. Smart cars for automakers, and identity bands with e-commerce support for business, are some examples. In the rich application tier, you have more of smartphone functionalities. You could use an upgradable Linux platform, which offers far more specifications in terms of screen, memory, clock speed, sensor outputs, graphics processing unit (GPU) outputs, etc., and other features that you might need for standalone devices, such as devices that use a subscriber identity module (SIM) card or have a separate account with the operator.
What would be the critical ingredients for a successful smart watch that people would really want to wear?
The cost, current drain and size are the critical success factors for most wearables. Some of the current smart watches are gigantic. There are very few ladies and fashion-conscious people who are going to wear such bulky smart watches. Device size is definitely a factor. Some smart watches have to be charged every four to five days, and consumer behaviour doesn’t support that. People want convenience; they don’t want to take off their watches twice a week just to charge them. So, current drain is definitely another critical success factor, something that we’re very aware of and are actually doing something about.
It is possible to make decisions on supporting more performance and memory in there, but all these have an impact on current drain, size and cost. These are the business models the developers are targeting for their next wave of wearables in the second tier.
The Linkit platform
What are the components included in your LinkIt platform, which make it suitable for a simple wearable or IoT device? Our readers would also like to have an idea of the processing power they can expect within.
It’s really a feature phone feature set that we integrate into the SoC at the core of LinkIt. We integrate all the components needed for a simple wearable or IoT device. LinkIt is designed with rich features, small footprint, and optimized power consumption. Specifics include 4MB flash memory, 4MB static random-access memory (SRAM), Bluetooth 4.0, Lfour CD controller, and an audio amplifier. It’s a very holistic simple application platform for the middle tier.
Of our two products that happen to be Wi-Fi oriented, the MT7688 has a fairly competitive processor of 580MHz to support all the data. Together with a MIPS24KEc Linux-based operating system, the solution can handle rich data streams. The MT7681 in contrast is clocked at 80MHz, a mid-CPU, more intended for battery life consideration, smaller size, and lower power.
In what price bracket would wearables built on this platform appear, when they come to market?
A lot of the fitness band devices sold last year were priced between US$100 and $US150, so the lower price will be an important factor for the success of these devices. This puts them right in the sweet spot of the Super-mid market – where we will see an abundance of mid-range devices that will meet the needs of the rising global middle class.
What can you tell us about the form factor of this kit, and what it means for wearables based on it?
The size is very small, at 5.4×6.2x1mm, and can be accommodated in a very wide range of form factors, whether glasses or slimmer watch designs or identity fitness bands. The design is also extremely efficient on energy. Being able to reduce the amount of current consumed by the SoC allows you to do a number of things – including designing very slim products. It also has a very competitive charging profile. A recharge lasts longer, and it has better energy characteristics.
A vision to work on
What would you really like to see in a wearable device?
I would like to see some personal identity features built into it, for authorising commercial transactions. I would like to see developers innovate around financial transactions, turning the gadgets people wear on their wrist into a tool to make simple payments. I would really like to see more innovations in that area because every consumer deals with making payments. You can use wearables to keep users connected, updated, and also make it easy for them to catch public transport, or even get a cup of coffee. I think it’s a wonderful leap forward for the consumers.