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Will the new MetaWear board make wearables the next big thing?

MetaWear—aimed at Android and iOS developers—is a small, low powered, board that comes with built-in Bluetooth LE. But that's not the most interesting thing about it...

People have been predicting wearables would be the next big thing for about as long as I’ve been involved in technology. But lately the predictions have become louder and more frequent, and there are a growing number of micro-controller platforms aimed at the wearables market.

My belief is that the deciding factor about what is going to be the next big thing is (at least usually) its technological maturity — that the technology has reached the point where it’s useable by people other than the alpha geeks. It appears possible that we’ve reached that point for wearables, as the three factors that matter most when dealing with them — size, battery life and communications — are starting to converge towards the stage where the devices are not just possible, but usable.

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Enter the MetaWear, a new ARM-powered wearables board that’s the size of a quarter, has really low power consumption, and comes with built-in Bluetooth LE for communication. I remember playing with Leah Buechley’s LilyPad Arduino all the way back in 2009 and the differences between the two are striking, not just in the hardware — it lacks the characteristic sewing pads of the LilyPad — but also the philosophy behind it.

The sew holes are too big and too use-case specific. It didn’t really make sense to us. However there are still a lot of vias through [the board] which you could thread a very small needle through, and that might be one of my next hacks. – Laura Kassovic

I talked to Laura Kassovic—one of the co-founders of MbientLab, which created the board—about the MetaWeartheir Kickstarter project, and what they’re doing with the board themselves.

The LilyPad — and its Adafruit descendants like the Flora and the Gemma — are basically Arduino boards at heart. That is great for those of us that have a lot of experience using the Arduino platform, but there are a whole bunch of people who find micro-controllers difficult and unintuitive. The MetaWear is a wearable board aimed at Android and iOS — or even node.js — developers rather than people that hack on micro-controllers.

Instead of uploading your code to the micro-controller board, it comes pre-loaded with its own custom firmware — sort of like an Arduino running Firmata — and you talk to the board from the MetaWear’s Android and iOS SDKs, or using a generic Bluetooth LE library like noble from node.js. In other words, you don’t have to worry about cramming the smarts of your wearables into the limited computing power of the board itself. Instead, you use your smart phone and its sensors — accelerometer, magnetometer and gyroscope — and location information — Wi-Fi and cell positioning, and GPS — without having to roll out any hardware.

We’ve already seen the arrival of the Javascript and web developers to the maker community, and you have to wonder whether mobile developers will be the next group of hackers to arrive on the scene, because suddenly they have access to hardware they can play with in their native languages.

But that’s not all—by exposing the board’s API via Bluetooth LE, this is a board that’s doesn’t have a native language. If your language and platform of choice has some way to talk to Bluetooth LE devices, you can talk to it. Despite the fact it’s actually not that hard to learn to work with an Arduino — or another micro-controller platform — a lot of people see it as a barrier to entry. The MetaWear just removed that barrier. That’s powerful.

MetaWear reached its funding goal on Kickstarter in less than 48 hours. If you want to pick one up (the board and basic accessories are available for US$30) the project still has a couple of weeks on the clock before the Kickstarter finishes.

General Specification

  • Bluetooth 4.0 (Low energy)
  • Android and iOS sample MetaWear App to get started
  • Documentation on Github
  • Simple API calls to connect with Bluetooth
  • Simple API calls to control peripherals and sensors
  • FCC / CE certified
  • Downloadable CAD enclosures
  • Wireless software updates (OTA)
  • ANCS compatible
  • BLE range of up to 150ft

Hardware Specification

  • Nordic BLE SOC + ARM Cortex M0
  • 256KB flash memory + 8KB RAM.
  • Bluetooth Low Energy stack + Metaware Firmware
  • 3.7V DC (with on-board power regulator)
  • USB micro rechargeable Lithium Ion battery
  • 2 analog/digital I/O pins + I2C for extensions
  • 3-axis accelerometer (w/ tilt, orientation, freefall detection)
  • Ultra Bright RGB LED
  • Coin vibrator motor
  • Simple 4Khz Buzzer
  • Temperature sensor
  • Micro push-button

Alasdair Allan

Alasdair Allan is a scientist, author, hacker, tinkerer and co-founder of a startup working on fixing the Internet of Things. He spends much of his time probing current trends in an attempt to determine which technologies are going to define our future.


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