Embedded Active Components Are Enabling Independent Smartwatches with Smartphone Capabilities

Altium Designer
|  Created: March 24, 2017  |  Updated: December 7, 2020

Engineers literally working on a PCB

The innovation that most clearly signals the potential of the smartwatch is the LG Watch Sport’s ability to make phone calls and receive data without needing to be near enough to an anchor smartphone to connect. This turns the question “why would I need a smartwatch when I have a smartphone?” on its head. How about: “why would I need a smartphone when I have a smartwatch?” Read on to find out more!

I live in one of the more tech-savvy cities in America, and I know exactly one person who owns a smartwatch. I know maybe five who don’t own a smartphone. See the difference?

Admittedly, I don’t know everyone. There are plenty of early adopters, tech geeks, status show-offs, and people who generally have more money for frivolous technology than I do. Some of these people have purchased Apple’s latest wearable or a Huawei watch running the Android Wear 2.0. Smartwatches do exist. People do buy them. Around 9 million were sold worldwide in the fourth quarter of 2016 (about 0.1% of the world’s population). They’re miracles of miniaturized engineering. Some of them look pretty sleek. But nobody needs one.

Current State of Smartwatch Technology Fails to Deliver Broad Use Case

Why not? Because currently they don’t do anything that something else can’t do better. If all you want is a watch, you can buy a cheaper watch. Or if you want to show off a more expensive watch, like those fighter pilots do, you can buy a more expensive watch. Maybe you want to make a phone call, send a text, write an email, check your Facebook, play a game, or any of the other million things a smartphone is capable of. You can use your smartphone to do it. If you want to track your fitness, you can use a fitness tracker. In a way, a smartwatch is sort of like the new fighter jet, the F-35. It wants to do everything, and so it can’t do anything well enough to justify its existence.

Reading this, you may get the impression I don’t see any future in the smartwatch. That’s not the case. I think, in fact, there is enormous potential in the smartwatch. If only 0.1% of the world’s population bought one in Q4 2016, even accounting for prior sales, there’s still about 99% of the world’s population that could buy a smartwatch and 1% that could buy another one. That’s potential.

The innovation that most clearly signals the potential of the smartwatch resides in the LG Watch Sport. The Sport has the ability to make phone calls and receive data without needing a smartphone. This turns the question “Why would I need a smartwatch when I have a smartphone?” on its head. How about: “Why would I need a smartphone when I have a smartwatch?”

A kid with a smartwatch

A kid with a smartwatch. That’s some market saturation.

Overcoming Consumer Objections to Smartwatch Technology

According to a 2016 survey of 11,000 consumers by Kantar Worldpanel ComTech, the strongest objection of 33% of consumers to owning a smartwatch was that smartwatch functions weren’t useful to them. Another 29% of survey respondents replied that their smartphone already did everything they needed. The largest group, 41%, replied that smartwatches were too expensive.

Okay. So what if a smartwatch did everything a person needed a smartphone for—would it still be too expensive? Currently, the average price for a smartphone is $567 (ignoring carrier plan prices and discounts) and the average price for a smartwatch is $218. That’s $349 cheaper. If you could make calls on a watch that also runs apps, why would you need a smartphone? As printed board (PCB) design evolves, smartphone capabilities will become more easily replicable in a watch-sized device. That’s great news for companies wanting to sell smartwatches.

Woman using her phone and checking her watch

Lose the phone!

Potential Applications of Next Generation Smartwatches

Better yet, new technologies have the potential to integrate watches into everyday life in ways phones have yet to fully realize. Wireless pay systems, like Apple Pay, already exist and are becoming adopted in wider areas. As watches become more independent, they’ll cut their anchoring smartphone away. Then the family photos you keep in your wallet can be replaced by those on your Facebook. Are you concerned about not having enough surface area on the display to type your texts and emails? Look to the Nintendo Wii. Precise accelerometers can identify hand movements so that your gestures are registered as commands to your screen. That’s if you even bother to write when you’ve got top-notch AI voice recognition.

Not only can watches replace wallets, but keys as well. Keyless entry and ignition were standard or optional on 72% of vehicles in 2014, and that number is only rising. Why carry a key fob when you’ve got one strapped to your wrist? And if we’re doing away with keys, why should you need a piece of metal to get into your house when your watch broadcasts a more precisely coded signal to your home security system than any amount of tumblers can produce? That’s right. I’m telling you your smartwatch is gonna make pockets obsolete. And if you don’t have pockets, where are you gonna put your phone? I guess you’d have to strap it to your wrist or something…

Embedded Components and Other Advances Allow Improved Functionality

Obviously, we’re not there yet, but that doesn’t mean we’re not well on our way. PCB layers will soon be down to .04 mm. components, such as more powerful low-amperage processors, stronger rf and infrared transmitters, and the aforementioned accelerometers are increasingly being embedded. Embedded components take up less space, resulting in smaller devices with greater capabilities. Smaller boards can result in lower manufacturing costs. The heat conducting structures, such as thermal microvias directly contacting the component, improve thermal transfer. And parasitism is decreased due to shorter electrical path lengths.

engineers on PCB

Engineers literally working on a PCB 

It will be a game changer when watches are as capable as phones. That’s great news for big companies like Apple with the capital to manufacture and distribute the millions, and billions, of watches. However, Apple’s market share decreased significantly year over year from 2015 to 2016, and small players such as Pebble grabbed more of the pie. As smartwatches are still an up-and-coming product, there is room for more at the table.

These days, anyone with access to professional PCB design software like CircuitStudio®, which is built of off Altium Designer® technology, has the potential to create their own smart technology. Once you’ve made it to the big leagues, your opportunities for growth are endless. Either that or you could just cash out to Apple or Google, buy a couple foreign passports, and kiss income tax goodbye. That’s the American dream, right?

private island

You flying to your private island.

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PCB Design Tools for Electronics Design and DFM. Information for EDA Leaders.

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