A Light Bulb Moment for Wearable Technology
The hardware/software Intel® Edison platform and the dime-sized Intel® Curie™ module take different approaches to wearables’ size, weight and power challenges.
What do the American entrepreneur and inventor of the light bulb and the phonograph, Thomas Alva Edison and Marie Sklodowska-Curie, the Polish physicist and chemist, the first woman to win a Nobel prize have in common? Born 20 years apart, the two scientists are honored by Intel in eponymous technologies, designed to encourage creative development of wearable technology. It was back in 1991 that consumers began to take an interest in what was inside the PCs they were buying, when Intel drew their attention to which processor was used with the logo “Intel Inside.” Now, 20 years on, the company is interested on being on the outside—as wearable products using the Intel® microcomputer, based on its processors, begin to grab attention.
At the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), the company announced Edison technology, a hardware/software platform, which is designed to be combined with sensors for Internet-enabled products.
Quashing the Queue
The mini-computer targets the wearable market, offering a general compute platform in a small form factor, and with built-in wireless capability.
The initial system was the same size and shape as a secure digital (SD) card, i.e. 1.260 in. x 0.945 in. x 0.083 in., or 32.0 mm x 24.0 mmx 2.1 mm). Later that year, the company switched the dual core, Intel® Quark™ processor x86, running at 400 MHz, for a 22 mm Intel® Atom™ Z34XX processor (Tangier SoC), made up of two Intel Atom processors based on Silvermont microarchitecture, running at 500 MHz, and an Intel Quark processor, running at 100 MHz.
Low-power Silvermont microarchitecture features dynamic execution (also known as out-of-order execution). This allows it to process instructions as and when it is able to, rather than queuing tasks until one has been executed before beginning the next one.
This second version has components on both sides of the board, and as a result is thicker than the original. It is slightly larger all around, with dimensions of 1.398 in. x 0.984 in. x 0.154 in., or 35.5 mm x 25.0 mm x 3.9 mm.
It also increased storage, with 1GB of (Low Power Double Data Rate version 3 (LPDDR3) RAM and 4GB of embedded MultiMedia Card (eMMC) Flash memory.
Designed to Expand
Crucially for developers, Intel Edison board technology is compatible with the Arduino Integrated Development Environment (IDE) and Wolfram language, also known as Mathematica. Wolfram is a multi-paradigm programming language to build functions, graphics and structures as well as solve equations; it is installed in every Raspberry Pi, the credit-card sized Single Board Computer (SBC) developed by the UK’s Raspberry Pi Foundation to promote computer science education. It also supports existing Intel® architecture (IA)-based programming tools and has a Linux OS based on Yocto, the open source for templates, tools and methodologies to create custom Linux-based systems for embedded products. The OS allows users to compile C/C++ files, or run codes such as Python or Node.js.
Retaining the Bluetooth Low Energy (LE) and dual-band 802.11a/b/g/n WiFi support, the second version of the Intel Edison mini-computer has increased I/O capability, boasting 30 interfaces via a compact, 70-pin connector, maintaining the small form factor, but increasing design flexibility. The connector contains SD, Universal Asynchronous Receiver/Transmitter (UART) Serial Peripheral Interface (SPI), General Purpose Input/Output (GPIO) and USB 2.0 On The Go (OTG) signals as well as support for Arduino add-ons.
The Intel Edison board software/hardware platform is clearly designed for development teams, using an SoC-based platform with a choice of expansion boards to develop specific, targeted applications. Intel has also released the Intel® IoT Developer Kit, which contains a development board, Yocto Linux system, Eclipse and Intel® XDK IDE, IoT Cloud Analytics and libraries to get projects started.
Created for the experimentally minded developer, the Intel Edison board offers a direct path to productization for consumer as well as light industrial IoT projects. Its connectivity options elevates it above, for example, the Intel® Galileo development board, which is described as a maker board for IoT product development, via prototype and design kits.
Wearables are Buttoned Up
What a difference a year makes. At this year’s CES, the company unveiled the prototype of the Intel® Curie™ module, a button-sized microcomputer. This too, is targeted at wearable product development, but this time for design teams that may have never used silicon before, said Mike Bell, vice president, general manager, new devices group, Intel.
The circular, low power module is tiny—approximately 18mm in diameter (or 0.71 inch); about the size of a dime. Yet, its size belies its potential for extended battery operation in small products that will sense the wearer’s movements or body conditions.
It is based on a 32-bit Intel® Quark™ SE processor. This is the company’s first purpose-built SoC for wearable devices. Within the small form factor, it packs 80kB SRAM, 384kB Flash memory for storage, WiFi/Bluetooth LE support and a DSP sensor hub with a pattern-matching, six-axis sensor. This motion sensor combines an accelerometer and a gyroscope. The pattern matching identifies different activities, which can be used to assess fitness or health levels, in small, unobtrusive medical or fitness devices, or in an app to send data to a smartphone.
Unlike the Intel Edison board, the Intel Curie module is designed to be a standalone technology for wearable devices. It has an integrated Power Management Integrated Circuit (PMIC) that enables it to operate from a coin cell battery for long periods of time—days, even months, said CEO Brian Krzanich, during his keynote at CES 2015.
The size of the Intel Curie module opens up possibilities for it to be integrated into small pieces of jewelry, from watches, to pendants and rings as well as smartwatches and even as buttons on clothing.
The tiny Intel Edison board is targeted at the development of wearable technology with expansion boards to add functionality for specification applications, rather than with an eye to small, near-invisible wearable technology, offered by the Intel Curie module.
There is one word of caution. What was unveiled at CES 2015 was a prototype, and the Intel Curie module has not been authorized by the rules of the Federal Communications Commission at the time of going to press. The company appears confident that these conditions will be met, as it is expected to be available in the second half of this year.
When it does ship, the module is expected to be bundled with Intel® IQ Software kits. These are readymade programs, with features for wearable applications. They include embedded software that runs on the module, algorithms, and apps for smartphone, cloud management and cloud analytics. The Body IQ Kit addresses biometric design, with functions for step-counting and recognizing the wearer’s activity in real-time. The Social IQ Kit includes connectivity features.
From a focus on its processor technology inside computing devices, Intel recognizes the opportunities in wearable technology, where it’s what’s on the outside (of the body) that counts. In two successive years, it has introduced two form factors, for two different genres of developer of wearable technology products.
Caroline Hayes has been a journalist covering the electronics sector for more than 20 years. She has worked on many titles, most recently the pan-European magazine, EPN. Now a freelance journalist, she contributes news, features, interviews and profiles for electronics journals in Europe and the U.S.