Last week we were fortunate enough to attend the Wearable Technologies Conference here in Taipei City, not least because we got to spend some time chatting with CEO and founder Christian Stammel. Christian has been involved in the wearables space since before the term was coined and has spent the last few years developing the Wearables Technology (WT) Conference, a business accelerator for more than 3000 renowned companies around the globe.
WT offers leading innovation and market development platforms for all technologies worn close to the body, on the body or even in the body. So yeah, when it comes to wearable devices and the Internet of Things, these guys know what they are talking about. The WT Conference in Taipei brought together a range of companies involved in wearable technology development including AiQ, TE, Clothing +, Gemalto, US Micro, ST and Hauwei. After the event we managed to get some quality time with event organiser, CEO and founder Christian Stammel.
“But it was clear, to me at least that with the establishment of the low energy Bluetooth combo chips in smartphones, this wave would not be stoppable. It was just a question of when, not if.”
MG: When did you first get the idea to setup this Wearable Technologies Conference?
CS: It was more the idea at first to build the network, back in 2004, but there was a time when certainly in Europe there were many projects going on, back in 1999-2000 regarding ‘smart textiles’. So integration of sensory (devices) or at that time, an MP3 player into a jacket, or buttons on a jacket to monitor your MP3 player – all these kinds of things. Sometimes funded by bigger companies, sometimes funded by public state. A lot of things were going on.
Even bigger companies were joining that – Burton (UK Menswear Company) did a lot with Motorola at that time, integrating a ‘Motorola Free Speech System’. They did some nice things but it was too early. We didn’t have the standards, we didn’t have Bluetooth Low Energy, we didn’t even have smartphones and Bluetooth was not widely adopted of course. It was very early.
For example it was also the time when Siemens tried to do the Xelibri phones… (a phone which was designed for women that used a rounded clam-shell design and an integrated mirror). It was totally amazing what they did round around late 2002.
This was the last type of this whole phenomenon of fashion and electronic devices, and integration with jackets etc. And then everything came down, (the Internet Dot-com Bubble burst) and suddenly in 2003 and 2004 nobody invested any more in these activities which were already there.
At that time I got involved because I also thought that it was not the right way to introduce these technologies. The smart textile approach where you integrate a whole phone into a jacket or a whole MP3 player was wrong. I set it up with a definition. I said OK, take all kinds of devices that you can wear close to your body, on your body or even in your body – and then separate all these things. Not to have it totally integrated into the jacket, but more as an accessory. Accessorize the whole thing.
That was the start, and then suddenly by 2005-2006 you have the GoPro, and we did a trade show, not a conference, where we showcased the fact that there were are already products out there… and we started in the sports area.
The starting point for this whole umbrella organization we have today which is covering the whole field of wearable technologies, all started with sports and fitness. The first wearable devices were introduced to the market, and we have the first wearable technologies billionaire, the founder of GoPro (Nick Woodman) and that was the starting point. People using electronic devices during their sports and fitness activities to optimize these activities.
MG: So even at this early stage, the sports and fitness segment was the spearhead of the wearables market?
CS: Yes. The good thing about sports and fitness is that the people who are buying these things are quite sophisticated, you know? They are prepared to spend 10,000 Euros on a carbon bicycle, or 2,000 Euros on skis. So they are willing to spend… 500 Euros on a camera or on a heart-rate measuring tool. They are able to spend much more money than a normal consumer electronics customer, because they are sophisticated and want to optimize their sports or fitness activity, so that’s a nice entry point. And it’s an entry point that is positive, it has nothing to do with health, it’s a very positive way to introduce something. These are small pieces, not high volume. Even if you are talking about pulse (heart-rate) watches, we talking about 50,000 pieces a year back in 2006/ 2007, not big volumes but it was a starting point.
MG: So at what point do we see wearables break out to a more mainstream audience?
CS: I remember very clearly in 2006 or 2007 when I met people from the Bluetooth SIG for the first time and they introduced me to the idea of introducing an additional standard in Bluetooth 2.1 with a dedicated standard for small devices and small data streams. This is the forerunner of today’s Bluetooth 4.0, or Bluetooth Smart. At that time it was obvious to me that we were looking at a big, big wave.
But it took a long, long time before all people involved were aware of this. In 2007 they started the whole certification process. A roadmap was created that outlined the specifications of such a chipset, and then the chipset manufacturers started to build the first chips. And this took a while.
The first Bluetooth 4.0 chipsets started to arrive in 2010-2011. And then to integrate into a smartphone also took some time. It wasn’t an easy step because it contained both Bluetooth Classic and the new Bluetooth 4.0, it was a combination of both. The new chip design was actually cheaper than the single Classic version and was broadly adopted even though the manufacturers were only actually using Classic Bluetooth, because the operating systems were unable to understand it at that time. The only one, the first adopter was Apple who opened their operating system for Bluetooth low energy. And that was a bottleneck for Android until it was finally resolved in Android 4.3.
At that time we did a lot of promotion, to stimulate the market to say in the Bluetooth chipset market, there is something coming. But it was clear, to me at least that with the establishment of the low energy Bluetooth combo chips in smartphones, this wave would not be stoppable. It was just a question of when, not if.
Now in 2014 Android is a much bigger part of things, after having been introduced in late 2013, 2014 is now the time when we have to learn to handle it, adapt these smart devices to our phones, and I think the big wave is coming in 2015. The interoperability is there, at first there were some problems, not all smart devices could connect easily to the phone, but these problems have been overcome because they solved it. Now these devices are interoperable, they run and there will be a big wave.
“…after having been introduced in late 2013, 2014 is now the time when we have to learn to handle it, adapt these smart devices to our phones, and I think the big wave is coming in 2015.”
MG: What other technologies are enabling the next wave, say for example in the Smart Home?
CS: Bluetooth low energy will also be significant in the smart home area. The latest thing is Bluetooth low energy mesh networks. Until today it was only possible to use Bluetooth in startopology (, but now it is possible to use it in a mesh, meaning you can jump from one node to another node, so you can easily connect rooms together, which was not possible before. This was first developed by CSR and now TI is also in the game. This is something about which we can be quite optimistic and positive.
If we talking about IoT and smart metering and these kinds of things, the development is there but the problem is the consumer that is not willing to pay much more for his new electricity meter which would allow him to know more about his power consumption, but he is not willing to pay one hundred Euros more. He as to replace something and if you have to replace something in your home environment it is a problem.
But when it comes to phones, I believe we are changing every second year or earlier, so it is easier to bring in new technology and a new infrastructure. We just have to think about this infrastructure we have here in my pocket. This is what I wear close to my body, and it can be enabled wirelessly, but the only thing we have at the moment is Bluetooth and NFC, but perhaps they are coming up with things that need less energy.
We saw presentations in July in San Francisco where companies were doing data transmission just over the aura of your skin, without energy. But of course I have to talk about what is possible today. Today we can do smart solutions that are easily connected to the phone and we can do it in very brilliant ways.
The question is only how to bring the consumer in where he’s not just wearing a FitBit band or fitness band for two months, so it’s more an app thing, it’s more a cloud thing. How do we integrate that whole story of fitness trackers and healthcare devices into your permanent human behavior. There are still some opportunities to optimize but it’s more on the back-end side, the cloud side, it’s more about the intelligent connection between the data we are collecting and the user.
If we sitting here drinking coffee and collecting data about how much we have drunk or our heart-rate, they (Google and Baidu for example) are already at the stage where we have to find ways to analyze and interpret the data to give the consumer benefits. In some ways it’s a horrible scenario, but I think also it could bring us a healthier life.