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Vision in wearables: Broader applications, functions

Posted: 26 Sep 2014 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:wearables? processors? image sensors? vision processing? smartphone?

We are now seeing once-hot technology markets such as computers and smartphones beginning to cool off. An analyst firm IDC, for example, forecast earlier this year that smartphone sales will increase only 19% this year, down from 39% in 2013. IDC also believes that beginning in 2018, annual smartphone sales increases will diminish to single-digit rates. Semiconductor, software, and electronic systems suppliers are therefore searching for the next growth opportunities, and wearable devices are likely candidates.

Analyst firm Canalys, for example, recently forecast shipments of more than 17 million 'smart band' wearables this year, when Canalys predicts the product category will become a key consumer technology, and that shipments will expand to more than 23 million units by 2015 and over 45 million by 2017. In the near term, the bulk of wearable shipments will consist of activity trackers and other smart bands, point of view cameras, and smart watches, but other wearable product types will also become more common, including smart glasses and 'life recorder' devices.

These wearable products can be greatly enhanced (and in some cases are fundamentally enabled) by their ability to process incoming still and video image information. Vision processing is more than just capturing snapshots and video clips for subsequent playback and sharing; it involves automated analysis of the scene and its constituent elements, along with appropriate device responses based on the analysis results. Historically known as 'computer vision', traditionally vision processing has been the bailiwick of large, heavy, expensive, and power-hungry PCs and servers.

Now, however, although 'cloud'-based processing may be used in some cases, the combination of fast, high-quality, inexpensive, and energy-efficient processors, image sensors, and software are enabling robust vision processing to take place right on your wrist (or your face, or elsewhere on your person), at price points that enable adoption by the masses. And an industry alliance comprised of leading technology and service suppliers is a key factor in this burgeoning technology success story.

Form factor alternatives

The product category known as 'wearables' comprises a number of specific product types in which vision processing is a compelling fit. Perhaps the best known of these, by virtue of Google's advocacy, are the 'smart glasses' exemplified by Google Glass (figure 1). The current Glass design contains a single camera capable of capturing 5 Mpixel images and 720p streams. Its base functionality encompasses both conventional still and video photography. But Google Glass is capable of much more, as both Google's and third-party developers' initial applications are making clear.

Figure 1: Google Glass has singlehandedly created the smart glasses market (top), for which vision processing-enabled gestures offer a compelling alternative to clumsy button presses for user interface control purposes (bottom).

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