Broadcom Eyes Big Role in Wearable Technology

Company officials introduce their WICED Direct chip platform that is aimed at the growing number of connected wearable devices.

Count chip maker Broadcom as another tech vendor that sees a wide-open future for wearable technology.

Broadcom officials in recent days have pushed to make their ambitions in the nascent market known, from unveiling a new wireless platform aimed at smart wearable components to having CEO Scott McGregor out front to publicly speak about where the company sees its greatest opportunities in the space.

And while companies like Apple and Samsung are talking about high-profile and expensive items like connected smartwatches and Google promotes its Google Glass headset, McGregor, in a post on Broadcom's blog and while speaking with journalists in San Francisco Aug. 27, said the possibilities for wearable computers are vast, from small devices that record a user's heart rate to those that can monitor people's pets.

In addition, McGregor sees smartphones and tablets as instruments that can help process all the data coming from the various wearable devices that users will be leveraging and send the data to the cloud, helping to drive down the costs to both manufacturers and consumers.

"We can harness the processing power of today's smartphones and tablets to negotiate all that new data—such as vital signs, athletic metrics or sleep quality—collected by a variety of wearable devices, which will help to reduce the processing requirements and power needs of the wearable device," he wrote in the blog. "In the future, we may see battery technology advancements that allow sensors to supply power to their own ample computing hardware. Wireless power transmission, power harvesting or even human-generated power, could really change the game. But until then, companies like Broadcom will focus on efficient radio designs and minimal power consumption."

The wearable technology space promises to grow significantly over the next several years. Analysts at Juniper Research are predicting that by 2018, wearable computing device shipments will hit 150 million, up from about 15 million this year. Other researchers are even more ambitious: ABI Research puts device shipments at 485 million by 2018. These devices will rely on a range of wireless standards, including WiFi, Bluetooth Smart, near-field communication (NFC) and GPS.

"But what will those devices look like?" McGregor asked in his blog post. "That's still anyone's guess as the market is so rife with innovative ideas that we just don't know which ones will become the most popular: smart glasses, wristwatches, bracelets or, perhaps, a new form-factor we haven't yet seen."

Whatever the device, Broadcom officials want to be in on the trend. And the company already has some products that can be leveraged in the space. Broadcom offers the Wireless Internet Connectivity for Embedded Devices (WICED) platform aimed at making it easier for manufacturers to put wireless connectivity into consumer devices. In addition, the company's BCM4390 system-on-a-chip (SoC) offers manufacturers a way of putting self-contained wireless connectivity into wearable products, McGregor said.

Broadcom officials on Aug. 27 announced the company is integrating WiFi Direct technology into the WICED platform to create a new offering that will enable manufacturers to create wearable devices that can connect directly to other smart wireless devices—like a smartphone or tablet—without the need of an access point to reach the Internet.

"At the heart of wearable technology is the wireless connectivity embedded into the sensor-laden devices that will be the driving force behind the development and adoption of the Internet of Things ecosystem," McGregor wrote. "Not only can wireless technologies transmit our personal data to the cloud for analysis and safekeeping, but they can turn the devices we already carry with us—namely, our smartphones and tablets—into helpers that take the workload off of the sensing devices themselves."

Broadcom officials want to supply the chips for many of these devices, whether they're from the likes of Apple and Samsung or from smaller operations that make smaller devices. McGregor, while talking with journalists, said he does "expect that a significant number of wearables coming out are going to have Broadcom silicon in them," according to the AllThingsD news site.