ARM technology driving the wearable trend

Wearable technology is the most talked about next-generation trend, predicted to hugely disrupt the consumer electronics landscape - and ARM is right at the centre of its emergence and growth.

Today, the wearable market includes a variety of products from smart bracelets and watches to smart glasses, smart rings and even “smart textiles”, where sensors move away from hard electronics and into the fabric of our day to day lives.


ARM provides scalable solutions that fulfil the desired features of all these wearable products, from the prediction and tracking of activity in smart bracelets, to the enablement of fabric sensors fusion platforms and the control of displays on fashion ware. ARM® IP, already in 90% of the smart bracelet segment (ARM technology in 9 out of 10 wristband wearables sold in the second half of 2013 – Tech Analyst firm Canalys), is ideally placed to accelerate the mass market adoption of wearables over the next decade.

Fitbit® Activity Tracker using an ARM Cortex®-M3 processor linked to mobile phone


Android OS based Omate® stand-alone mobile smart watch using MediaTek silicon with Cortex-A7 and ARM Mali-400 MP processors

Computers have become more “personal” over the last number of decades. In the 80s, the first personal computers started to enter our homes and in the 90s computers got even more familiar as mobile phones became a standard presence in our pockets.

This was enabled by technology getting smaller, faster, cheaper, more powerful and more energy efficient with each decade.

The computing power of the ENIAC computer that filled a whole room back in 1956 now fits inside a tiny chip within the dimple of a golf ball.


The ENIAC computer – and the Kinetis KL03 in the dimple of a golf ball

Freescale's latest Kinetis KL03 is one of the smallest 32-bit MCUs on the market and is ideally targeted at the wearable/IoT space. The Freescale KL03 microcontroller uses the Cortex-M0+ processor at 48MHz with 32KB Flash, 8KB boot ROM, 2KB RAM. It has 35µA/MHz low-power active mode with 1µA sleep mode.

Taking this trend further, it will soon be possible for these compute technologies to be as small as red blood cells (Mike Muller, Chief Technology Officer, ARM) and to disappear from sight, working away on the collection and analysis of data in the background across the human body or infrastructure network.

We now have access to more information about our lives, movements, actions and decisions than ever before. Wearable solutions are enabling this. What is more, these devices are evolving to become more contextually aware and by connecting to the cloud they will soon be in possession of supercomputing capabilities.

Context enriched services will use information gathered by these devices to predict immediate and future needs and proactively offer more sophisticated, situation-aware and usable functions and experiences.

Examples of context aware features could include:

  • When you start running, your smart bracelet switches into work-out mode and predicts future scenarios depending on fitness ability. For example, it indicates the need to slow down when data shows that in the next ten minutes you will hit “the wall”.
  • When you are driving, messages will come in as voice rather than text so you don’t distract yourself from the road by looking at your phone.
  • When you are in a meeting, calls will show up as a text message or know to go to voice mail or email so that you are not interrupted.

Authentication and the protection of personal data will also play a major role in the success of wearables. Today, most of us have to remember countless passwords for different services, and we are often asked to choose complicated strings of characters to make them harder to guess. Smart, personal, wearable devices could eliminate this headache by authenticating you based on unique body data. These devices could, in the near future, replace your wallet, house key, car key etc. and they will be enabled by ARM technologies such as ARM TrustZone®, which provides a system-wide approach to security for a wide array of client and server computing platforms, including handsets, tablets and wearable devices.

ARM has solutions to address all segments of the wearable market from basic to high-end wearables. Hence, regardless of what architecture the SIP partners decide to use today to innovate in wearable, ARM has already the fundamental building blocks.

The basic wearable uses a Cortex-M processor and may have a simple LCD or E–ink screen. It links to your smart phone and runs a simple RTOS. ARM’s mbed environment provides a rapid innovation environment by bringing together the tools, technology and ecosystem to quickly create ARM-based wearable devices that can be prototyped and then produced in high volume.

In the high-end, the platform includes the higher performance ARM IP cores (Cortex-A7, Mali-400 MP, Mali-V500 and Mali-DP500) and will most likely run an Android OS. These devices could be stand-alone and connect directly to cloud services, but today the majority still link to your mobile phone.

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Basic wearable to high end wearable

The always on, always connected Cortex-M processor interfaces with sensors and RF links and implements the sensor fusion platform, which combines data points from multiple sensors to yield the best estimate of the overall state of the system/person being observed. ARM is already leading this activity and working with key sensor players (Hillcrest Labs, Sensor Platforms Inc.) in this field today.

The sensor hub Cortex-M platform will enable contextual awareness tracking even when the application and GPU processor are in standby.

ARM also provides a complete solution to link your device to the cloud via ARM Sensinode software. Sensinode provides end-to-end software products that bring IP and web services to the wearable device, combining highly optimized embedded client software with a scalable management and web application platform.

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ARM GUI solutions for basic to high-end wearables

The user interface is now a key product differentiator. In the high-end wearable space, the Mali-400 MP is targeted at cost, energy and bandwidth constrained devices and provides graphics acceleration with OpenVG and OpenGL® ES in ~1mm2 on 28nm. This gives SiP vendors a simple, cost effective plug-in solution and complete wearable software stack that easily adds full-featured smartphone graphics capabilities to any high-end wearable product.

Higher performance products include the Mali-450 MP and Mali-T720.


The Mali-DP500 and Mali-V500 also enable energy efficient, cost competitive wearable devices. Mali-V500 offers advanced video technology combined with power-efficiency and is one of the smallest chip sizes in the market. The Mali-DP500 display controller offloads the GPU and provides all the post-processing (scaling, rotation, colour enhancement/conversion) as well as the timing information for the display.

These, together with the Cortex family of processors, provide a complete solution to target any price / performance point across the wearable segment, especially when combined with ARM’s focus on system wide power efficiency. Examples of this include:

  • System components and bandwidth reduction techniques to minimize contention and off-chip memory access.
  • System-wide power management policies to slow down or shut down components when not needed.
  • Additional power reduction from optimized Physical IP and system modelling in development systems tools.


Wearables is one of the fastest growing segments. It is expected to be the next big thing in the field of computing and could, over the next decade, become as large as the mobile market is today.

ARM and the ARM partnership are enabling this exciting future – we’ll keep you posted as to how it’s coming along!

In the meantime, you should also have a look at “What are you wearing on your ARM?”