Samsung Offers Bio-Processor for Fitness, Health Wearables

The chip, which will appear in devices in the first half of 2016, will measure everything from heath rate and rhythm to body fat and stress levels.

Fitness chip

Samsung Electronics is rolling out a tiny chip packed with heath- and fitness-monitoring technologies that officials say will begin appearing in a range of wearable devices in the first half of 2016.

Samsung officials on Dec. 29 announced that the company is mass-producing the Bio-Processor aimed at the health-oriented wearable market that will contain the technologies that not only will be able to monitor the wearer's heart rate, but also other metrics, including skin temperature, body fat, hearth rhythm, skeletal muscle mass and stress levels.

People are increasingly interested in constantly monitoring their health and fitness, such as the number of steps they take each day. Samsung is interested in accelerating the development of wearable devices that help users keep track of their health, officials said.

"With improvements in smart fitness devices and an increase in consumer health consciousness, more and more people are looking for ways to monitor various personal bio-data, or fitness data, to constantly manage their health," Ben K. Hur, vice president of marketing for Samsung's System LSI business, said in a statement, adding that the Bio-Processor," which can process five different biometric signals, is the most versatile health and fitness monitoring chip available on the market today."

The market for wearable devices is expected to grow rapidly over the next several years, and one of the industries driving the growth is fitness, according to industry observers. IDC analysts earlier this month said that in the third quarter, the number of shipments of wearable devices hit 21 million units, a 197.6 percent increase from the 7.1 million shipped during the same period in 2015.

In addition, while smartwatches have generated attention, thanks to new devices from the likes of Apple, Motorola, Pebble and Samsung, it doesn't yet seem to have affected the demand for fitness trackers, the analysts said. Both the smartwatch and fitness tracker segments showed strong growth in the third quarter, both sequentially and year-over-year, an indication that they can both co-exist for now, they said. Samsung's Bio-Processor is designed to enhance that separation. While devices like the Apple Watch and Samsung's own Gear 2 smartwatches can measure heart rate, devices with the Samsung chip will be able to monitor much more.

"The bifurcation doesn't just exist in features, but also in price," Jitesh Ubrani, senior research analyst for IDC's Mobile Device Trackers unit, said in a statement. "The average smartwatch or band came in at just over $400, and the average basic watch/band at $94. This leaves a lot of room for new players like Fossil and niche players like Pebble as they have an opportunity to address this space."

In addition, Gartner analysts said that demand for fitness trackers within the commercial space is increasing. The analysts in October said that by 2018, 2 million employees will be required to wear health and fitness tracking devices as a requirement for their employment. That includes not only those in dangerous or physically demanding jobs—like police officers, firefighters and EMTs—but also in other fields, such as professional athletes, political leaders, airline pilots and industrial workers.

Samsung officials are looking to drive the development of more fitness devices with the all-in-one Bio-Processor. The chip integrates analog front ends (AFEs), but also a microcontroller unit (MCU), power management integrated circuit (PMIC), digital signal processor (DSP) and eFlash memory, enabling it to process the bio-signals it measures without having to rely on external processing parts. It also will help drive down the size of wearables: It takes up about a quarter of the space that all those parts, if used in discrete form, would occupy, officials said.

The vendor also integrated five AFEs into the chip, including a bioelectrical impedance analysis, photoplethysmogram, electrocardiogram, skin temperature and galvanic skin response. Together, the AFEs cover body fat, skeletal muscle mass, heart rate and rhythm, skin temperature and stress levels.

To further fuel development of new fitness and health devices, Samsung also is making several Bio-Processor wearable reference platforms available to system makers, officials said.