Silicon Labs had the opportunity to sit down recently with our customer Jerry Wilmink, CEO and Founder of WiseWear. With a Ph.D. in optical-sensing and biomedical engineering, Wilmink built a company that creates connected IoT devices that can predict, prevent and alert users in times of potential danger.
Can you tell me about where the idea for the WiseWear application came from?
In 2010, I lost my grandfather shortly after he fell in his home and never recovered from the fall. After the loss, I asked the CTO of the Air Force if I could get a bunch of smart people to come to my house in San Antonio and build a product that could predict and prevent this from happening in the future. We built a bio-sensing hearing aid that could detect and alert a senior when they were dehydrated or when their gate or balance was off. With this prototype in hand, I completed an executive MBA at the University of Texas and put together a business plan. After winning several competitions with the prototype, I decided to build a business. So I cleaned out my retirement account and started WiseWear in 2013.
We’re now making a whole family of connected safety and security devices that keep everyone in your family safe and secure. We launched our first consumer product last year at CES where we actually fused advanced-antenna technology and sensors for safety and security into a jewelry offering. We’re now making a standalone connected device using low-power and a wide access network with extended battery life that does not require a cellular connection for children’s health & safety.
So you were able to marry your personal interests with your background. Tell me about some of your design challenges. What were some of the hurdles you had to make? Especially around the design to create something that people want to wear.
We are primarily technologists with an eye for design, but we ended up partnering with Iris Apfel, former interior designer for the White House and a bunch of New York-based jewelry executives. We had them fly down to San Antonio in the initial product design meeting, given we didn’t know what jewelry should look like. They flew down and it was like the Devil Wears Prada visits the nerds. We sat at the table and fused together these two worlds of fashion and engineering. And we had a tug of war about what’s possible and what’s not possible in terms of form factors. The thing about connected technology design is the product is never done – you’re always updating firmware and apps. But in fashion, once the product is made, it’s done.
The challenges of this process were significant because this was the first kind of fused jewelry with sensors and electronics. Most wearables are made of plastics or elastomers or use a watch screen to transmit the signals through. Our patented technology allowed us to transmit the Bluetooth signals right through the metal material.
Was there any distortion or does that impact the signal at all?
Yes, but we have two patents to address this problem. For Bluetooth, we’re actually seeing the range from the bracelet to the phone is actually further than the phone to the bracelet, so the antenna works quite well, including distances of 50-70 feet. Manufacturing is a whole different challenge because we had to manufacture the jewelry piece with extensive orders for jewelry cuts. The cuts had to be precise enough that we could fuse the sensors and electronics into the jewelry piece while keeping quality and high fidelity signals.
I imagine size was an issue when getting the right components, such as sensors and chips?
Yes, we developed custom designs to get the right chips and components. We actually have one of the smallest boards inside any wearable. We couldn’t use anything that was off the shelf in terms of a complete board, so we had to design our custom builds with the antenna inside.
Tell me about how Silicon Labs got involved? What was it about our products that stood out over the competition?
You guys make the best components. Right now we’re using the Wonder Gecko 32-bit MCU and in some of our products going forward we’re going to be using even more of your components. We’ve always loved working with Silicon Labs and your components are just always the best that we come across in the industry. Given that we make a whole array and family of different types of products and services, Silicon Labs always seems to have some of the best in terms of quality and price.
Where do you see connectivity and IoT heading in the next 5 years?
Technology continues to gets closer to the body as we move from desktops, to laptops, to wearables, to smart apparel, to implantables - technology is invading us. The connectivity part is really the hot button item because the natural take on a wearable device is to just throw a CDMA or GSM chip in anything and connect it to the Internet. The reality is that’s like putting a gaming laptop on your wrist – it’s not a smart decision in terms of battery life or the utility of that connected product. So we’re starting to use low-power, wide access networks and make products that can connect at a very low cost.
Also, I’m pretty bullish on the development of smart apparel products for physiological monitoring and safety and security. I think that’s going to the next very important move before we get to implantables.
The technology design transitions we are seeing today can be likened to the transition of matter as it moves from a solid to a liquid to a gas. The initial smart phone and wearables were clunky looking, sort of like an ice cube. And now they’re starting to turn into a liquid and follow form factors that are more ascetically appealing and wearable. Then it turns into a gas and it’s ubiquitous, right?