Despite being talked about heavily for the last few years, wearables haven’t yet taken off. However it’s possible that the appearance of the Pebble Smartstrap, and Seeed Studio’s new RePhone, might change that. It’s possible that this year, or next, we’ll finally see a breakthrough year for wearable technology.
The three factors that affect a wearable the most — the size, its battery life, and available communications — are starting to converge towards the stage where the wearables objects are not just possible, as they have been in the past, but usable.
The original MetaWear board was aimed at Android and iOS developers rather than people that would normally buy a development board. It was small, low powered, and came with built-in Bluetooth LE. The new MetaWearC builds on the previous board. While the original board was good for prototyping, it was still too big to build products. The MetaWearC is almost as small as the coin cell that powers it.
I sat down and talked with Laura Kassovic about the new board, and where she see wearables — which have always been just around the next corner, going in the future.
You have a long history on Kickstarter, with 5 projects created, although not all of them funded. Can you talk a bit about that, and why you keep on returning to crowdfunding?
Kickstarter is certainly not new anymore but it is still a really great platform to crowdfund a dev board. On Kickstarter, you get instant feedback on your products and ideas. If my project fails on Kickstarter, then I won’t waste time building. I can also learn a lot through crowdfunding such as features that developers want on our future dev boards and the price they are most willing to pay for it. I owe my entire business to Kickstarter; crowdfunding has had a very deep and meaningful impact on my business and products.
How have your previous board been used by the Kickstarter community? Any surprises?
There have been quite a few hilarious and outrageous projects, however, my favorites are the ones that touch my heart. There is a father of a 15 year-old child with a muscular disorder who is building a custom fitness and movement tracker with MetaWear so he can keep track of his son’s health. I also met a woman who moved to India a few days after meeting me so that she could build a “LifeAlert” necklace for women in duress in rural parts of her country. It always feels good to empower Makers to build a life changing product and I am privileged to have a small part in it.
Right now there’s a a lot of new boards coming to market, why bring another one into the world?
There are a lot of boards on the market and I think that’s really great because there is no excuse not to build a product anymore. If you have an idea, there is a board out there for you to built it with.
The reason I love this new MetaWearC board is because I was working on a project 6 months ago and I was really dissatisfied with the size of available boards on the market. If I made my smart football with an Arduino, it would not only cost me $130 but the hardware is as big as the football itself! That’s nuts!
MetaWearC is all about the price and form factor; you get a lot of bang for your buck in a tiny size; and that is not something you can find on the market today.
Like your previous board, the MetaWearC is targeted at app developers. Unlike boards like the Arduino, software development is done on the phone, with your SDK, rather than on the board itself. Do you think that leaves the hardware less flexible?
We never want to limit our hardware so we started with our iOS and Android SDKs and we are now working on a Desktop SDK (Windows/C/C++/Python). We are now MBED compatible as well!
Our users let us know what they want and we build it for them. There are numerous mobile developers but very few firmware engineers, so we make tools that accommodate as many Makers as possible. At the end of the day, the more developers we enable, the more flexible the hardware becomes.
Your upcoming SDK has some interesting features, like digital signal processing and filters. Abstracting those sorts of historically difficult algorithmic problems will add a lot of power to the board. How do you see them being used?
Getting sensor data is one thing but doing something interesting and significant with it is another. We give our users the tool to do everything from signal noise reduction to butterworth filters so that they can build real application.
For example, when we made a smart boxing glove we used only the signal processing built into our APIs for MetaWear (a series of peak detectors and high pass filters followed by event counters applied on the raw accelerometer data).
Taking these sorts of algorithms and black boxing them for app developers could be dangerous if they don’t really know what to do with them, how do you intend guide developers to the right algorithms?
We have tutorials that explain how to use our basic filters and we are in the process of loading our website with numerous examples.
Our APIs abstract away a lot of the complexities of digital signal processing; for example, you can build a peak detector without knowing anything about its algorithm in just one function call. We also have noise reduction built-in so that you can download clean sensor data sets without knowing anything about high pass filter algorithms.
The MetaWearC isn’t much bigger than the coin cell battery that powers it. That form factor, and the range of sensors it has on board suggests you’re targeting it at the wearables market?
Our primary market has always been wearables and MetaWearC is the culmination of our efforts to build the most cost-effective sensor platform. Wearables are very size and application sensitive so if you are going to build a wearable platform, you better do it right. For $35, folks will be able to do a lot with MetaWearC and hopefully next year there will be an even smaller version of the board for just $25. For now, we are still bottle-necked by the size of the power source, the CR2032 battery!
Practical wearables always seem to be just over the next hill, why do you think that is? Do you think it’s because nobody has figured out a “killer app” yet, or is it just down to the hardware?
Historically, software has always lagged behind hardware. Processing power and size is never a restriction, it is always how the software utilizes the hardware and its functionality that is lagging. Although we haven’t found the “killer app” for wearables yet, I think that is ok because innovation is an iterative process and the journey is much more interesting than the destination.
I also think that the killer wearable app will not impose on our routine but rather improve it; I don’t want to have to wear a bracelet so that I know how many steps I walked today, rather it has to be done transparently and the data should be available to me at a glance.
The MetaWearC is overfunding on Kickstarter, with just over a week to go. So if you want one, you can still pick one up right now.
Alasdair Allan is a scientist, author, hacker and tinkerer, who is spending a lot of his time thinking about the Internet of Things. In the past he has mesh networked the Moscone Center, caused a U.S. Senate hearing, and contributed to the detection of what was—at the time—the most distant object yet discovered.View more articles by Alasdair Allan