Health and fitness devices drive electronic component sales
A growing number of consumers are dialing up health and fitness information via their smartphones and tablets. Sensor-based devices collect health data about individuals and transmit it to their smartphones and tablets, which analyze the data and provide real-time monitoring and advice.
The vast number of portable computing devices on the consumer market is driving this trend. In 2012, the U.S. consumer electronics market reached $200 billion in wholesale revenue for the first time, with cell phone and tablet sales fueling the growth, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. And the market will grow, continuing to be driven mostly by sales of cell phones and tablets, according to Shawn DuBravac, chief economist and senior director of research at the CEA.
“We estimate sales will rise about 6 percent in 2012, in nominal terms, compared to 2011,” he said. ”Without those two categories, we would have been down 5 percent from 2011.”
According to DuBravac, 2012 smartphone sales are expected to surpass all computing devices combined, including tablets.
iBGStar is a blood glucose meter that attaches to iPhones or iPods for diabetes monitoring. The product retails for $74.99. Image courtesy Sanofi.
Smartphones and tablets will remain the industry’s twin growth drivers. Smartphone unit volume is projected to grow 18 percent in 2012 over 2011 in the U.S., to about 108 million units, while worldwide tablet volume is expected to climb 55 percent, to about 700 million units. Tablets are in 30 percent of U.S. households, and that percentage is forecast to grow. “Smartphones are no longer used mainly as communications devices,” DuBravac said. “They are being used more for Internet use, to replace mp3 players and navigation devices, and to act as hubs for third-party devices.”
Manufacturers are taking advantage of technology already built into smartphones and tablets that allow them to host affordable accessory devices.
One accessory category seeing increased growth is wearable sensors for health and fitness activity monitoring. This, in turn, is boosting the sales of microcontroller units (MCUs), a key component in such devices.
“There’s an increase in units and in dollars in [the health and fitness] market—and the overall accessory market is exploding,” said Stuart Lipoff, a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).
“As a result of the growth in cell phone and tablet sales, in the last 18 to 24 months we’ve seen a very large ecosystem of applications being developed that have moved from purely software to hardware plus software,” DuBravac said. “So we’re seeing a lot more accessories that take advantage of hardware already built into smartphones.” This allows companies to make simpler, smaller and more affordable devices for consumers, such as health and fitness monitoring devices.
Emerging wearable health and fitness sensor applications are benefitting from lower-cost MCUs and motion sensors because smartphones and tablets have enabled the high-volume production of these types of components.
Monitoring for the masses
Medical monitoring devices for consumers, in particular, have been in the spotlight. At the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show, health-care technology had its own section, where many personal health monitors debuted. The market for wearable health-care technologies is projected to exceed $2.9 billion in 2016, accounting for at least half of all wearable technology sales.
ABI Research projects that by 2016, the annual production of wearable wireless medical devices will reach more than 100 million units. The market for wearable sports and fitness-related monitoring devices is projected to grow as well, possibly reaching 80 million units by 2016.
What’s driving the growth is consumers’ interest in tracking their own health via mobile means. A new survey from the Pew Internet & American Life Project finds 19 percent of smartphone users have at least one health app downloaded onto their devices.
“You’re starting to see [wearable] devices that communicate with your smartphone—the heavy lifting is done by the smartphone,” IEEE’s Lipoff said. “For example, there’s a small, battery-powered, hearing aid-type device that goes into your ear that measures blood-oxygen levels, pulse rate and temperature. The device can send information to your smartphone, which records it and analyzes it, and can then synchronize it with your computer.”
“Piggybacking” on smartphones is key to the success of health and fitness monitoring devices. “Had we tried to build these types of systems 5 years ago, before smartphones became as prevalent as they are today, we would have had to build all the ‘brains’ of such a system into the secondary device itself,” CEA’s DuBravac said. “So you would have needed a device that could, let’s say, connect to the Internet and have enough memory to store data, and that device would have cost significantly more than the ones today that are basically a shell of a device.”
According to Lipoff, complicated devices and systems that historically were found only in hospitals and doctors’ offices have now begun to find their way into the consumer space in much simpler packages.
“Such devices used to be plugged into the wall at hospitals, and now they’re portable and battery-operated, but the trick is that they also have to be affordable for consumers,” he said.
Simple pedometers that only monitor steps taken throughout the day cost about $10 to $20, compared to $100 to $200 for more sophisticated devices. These include devices that monitor energy used while running, playing basketball and dancing, such as the Nike+ FuelBand, and other products that monitor calories burned or stairs climbed, such as the FitBit Ultra. Unlike older, bulkier devices that use chest straps as part of the monitoring system, today’s devices typically can be worn comfortably on the wrist or waist.
On the health side, you can find an assortment of devices. For example, Omron offers a portable ECG monitor. Abbott has a blood-sugar monitor. Garmin, Polar and Mio make heart-rate monitors. Also, Tanita, Weight Watchers and Health-o-Meter offer scales that monitor body fat and send the data to a smartphone. There is also a watch from Basis that continuously monitors heart rate without a chest strap, and a blood-glucose meter from iBGStar that attaches to iPhones or iPods for diabetes monitoring.
“People with chronic problems are being sent home with sophisticated vital-sign monitors,” Lipoff said. “This is the future.”
MCUs making a move
The growing demand for health and fitness devices has raised the sales of microcontrollers. MCUs are integrated circuits that act as simple computers. They incorporate reduced-instruction-set CPUs, I/O ports, memory storage and high-precision converters.
MCUs can be as small as 3mm × 3mm and typically cost from under a dollar to $2 each, though the cost of an MCU that meets the performance requirements of health and fitness monitors would be closer to $2.
The microcontroller market is projected to continue growing in 2012 thanks, in part, to the growth of high-performance, embedded, 32-bit microcontrollers in consumer and industrial applications, according to Lipoff.
STMicro-electronics’ STM32 MCUs and MEMS gyro are both used in the Nike+ FuelBand fitness monitoring device. Image courtesy Nike.
However, there is still opportunity for growth in 16-bit MCU sales, especially with devices that previously did not have an MCU, such as pregnancy tests and thermometers.
Typically, wearable sensing devices can effectively operate with an 8-bit MCU, but 16- and 32-bit MCUs are said to be better-suited for more advanced functionality.
An 8-bit MCU will work well with a heart-rate monitor, but a 16-bit or higher MCU is more efficient for a glucose monitor, according to Alec Melnick, senior product marketing manager of business development at San Diego-based MCU manufacturer Lapis Semiconductor, a division of the ROHM Group.
MCU manufacturers that once focused only on lower-bit MCUs will need to shift research to higher-bit MCUs to make their products compatible with newer, more sophisticated systems, according to Melnick.
“Our customers led us into R&D on MCUs for health and fitness devices, such as heart-rate monitors,” Melnick said. “Customers came to Lapis seeking MCUs that would integrate with the health and fitness devices they were developing.”
The FitBit Ultra has Texas Instruments’ MSP430 MCU inside. Image courtesy FitBit Ultra.
Texas Instruments is another MCU manufacturer that’s taken notice of the surge in the use of health and fitness devices.
Each MCU requires a specific set of peripherals to achieve the desired function,” according Jerome Schang, a product marketing engineer at Texas Instruments, Dallas.
“While TI’s MCUs cover the entire spectrum of consumer devices, from consumer to industrial to safety, our MSP430 MCUs are the most popular microcontrollers when it comes to medical, sports and fitness devices,” Schang said. “On top of fully featured MCUs, TI has a unique wafer-level, chip-scale-package technology that enables developers to embed microcontrollers in the smallest possible [devices], such as in sport watches, bike pedals, wearable sensors, activity monitors and wristbands,” he said.
Continued growth of the MCU market can be expected to lead to even more research in MCU technology, which will lead to more functional and affordable consumer health and fitness devices within the next 4 years, according to Melnick.
Motion-sensor technology is a key enabler for wearable sensors and health and fitness monitoring. IHS Research estimates that 170 million wearable devices will be shipped in 2016, and many of these devices will incorporate motion sensors.
Worldwide microcontroller market forecast: This graph from Databeans Inc. plots the worldwide growth rates of revenue, unit shipments in millions of units (MU), and average selling price (ASP) of microcontrollers for the next 5 years. While global MCU sales are expected to see slight growth from 2011 to 2012, with $15.9 billion in global sales expected in 2012, the market is expected to grow faster in 2013 as the global economy recovers and more advanced 16-bit and 32-bit devices fall in price, allowing them to replace older 4-bit and 8-bit devices in many traditional applications. Table courtesy Databeans.
During the past several years, the smartphone market has driven down the size, cost and power of MEMS motion-tracking devices, due to volume hitting critical mass, according to MEMS maker InvenSense, Sunnyvale, Calif.
Integration has also increased to the point where the MEMS industry has achieved 9-axis sensing—a combination of 3-axis gyroscopes, accelerometers and magnetometers—in a 4mm × 4mm × 0.9mm package.
For example, the InvenSense MPU-9150, a 9-axis motion-tracking device, simplifies component integration and qualification for wearable sensors and smartphones, according to the company, because it provides all necessary motion-sensing elements in one package.
MEMS motion-tracking devices measure linear motion, the rate of rotation, direction and altitude. With this information and sophisticated algorithms, it is now possible to accurately classify and monitor any number of activities throughout the day: sitting, walking, running, swimming, jumping, swinging—virtually any physical movement.
TI’s 16-bit MSP430 portfolio includes 400-plus ultralow-power microcontrollers with more than 25 package options. Image courtesy Texas Instruments.
“There are increasing demands to optimize performance and save [printed circuit] board space,” said Mike Housholder, senior director of business development at InvenSense. “This is particularly true in the wearable sensor arena, where board space is even more constrained than in smartphones. We anticipate that many key accessories will be in the form of fitness or activity monitoring devices. The devices will be designed for placement on hips, wrists, shoes, etc.”
In early 2012, InvenSense launched a MotionFit software development kit that enables developers to more readily create wearable sensor solutions for fitness, health and sports applications.
The InvenSense kit is about the size of a watch and comes with hardware, software and a watch band. It features the company’s MPU-9150 motion-tracking device and a pressure sensor for altitude. The sensors connect to a low-power microcontroller that pushes data to a smartphone, tablet, PC or other device via a Bluetooth link.
InvenSense has developed a number of sensor reference designs to validate compatibility with its partners’ MCU architectures, according to Hous-holder. (Reference designs are technical blueprints of a system that contain the essential elements of a system and allow third parties to enhance or modify the design as required.)
Health and fitness monitoring devices have come a long way from bulky boxes and obtrusive straps. And while you may not own any clothes with activity sensors in them yet, ABI Research predicts you soon will.
That gives a whole new meaning to wearable devices. µ
$10 million contest for best mobile medical device
The X PRIZE Foundation and Qualcomm Foundation announced at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show that they are holding a contest intended to “revolutionize health care,” according to Qualcomm. The top prize is $10 million.
The winner of the Qualcomm Tricorder X PRIZE will be the team judged to have developed a mobile platform that most accurately diagnoses a set of 15 diseases or health conditions. Teams must deliver consumer-oriented information in a way that provides a compelling user experience while capturing real-time, critical vital signs, such as blood pressure, respiratory rate, temperature and oxygenation.
The competition will be open for about 3½ years. Teams must advance through a qualifying round and a final round of judging. Up to three teams will be awarded a prize in the final round.
The goal of the competition is to drive development of devices that give consumers access to information about their health on portable electronic devices.
“Qualcomm sees a tremendous future in the mobile health field,” said Mark Winter, senior director of the Qualcomm Tricorder X PRIZE. “The intent is for Qualcomm to be an important part of the infrastructure that supports many types of mobile health applications.”
While many personal health tracking devices are emerging, Winter said Qualcomm sees a need for a unified consumer device that measures multiple medical conditions and provides a more unified view of personal health than other devices.
It’s hoped that the winning Tricorder X PRIZE device will enable consumers in any location to quickly and effectively assess their personal health conditions, determine if they need professional help and answer the question “What do I do next?” when it comes to their health.
“In North America, there is an obvious health-care crisis,” Winter said. “The cost of health care is astronomical, and outcomes are not what they should be. The health-care industry has called for a more well-informed consumer who can make better judgments about the urgency of care. We believe that with this knowledge, consumers will make better decisions and choices that will lead to a direct reduction in the cost of care and improved outcomes.”
— Y. Salcedo
Consumer Electronics Association