Now that Apple Inc. has hooked the world on smartphones that pack voice calls, Internet, video, cameras, antennas, sensors, and chargers in smooth pocket boxes, engineers are busy finding ways to unpack those features and make them disappear - into clothing, eyeglasses, and other "wearable" systems.
Consumers will buy an estimated 19 million wearable computers this year: fitness trackers like Fitbit, wrist computers like Pebble Smartwatch, "augmented- reality" video-game helmets, Google Glass optical computers, and more on the way, says a report by Ramon Llamas, mobile analyst at International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass.
The industry "is still at the launchpad," Llamas added. Consumers will be buying hundreds of millions of units a year by 2020, if trends hold, he projected.
"Wearable technology has been around for years. The rate at which it's evolving is the exciting part," said Bridgit Lombard, chief executive at Nathan Sports, a Philadelphia firm that develops gear for runners and sells it in 45 countries.
"The notion of a quantifiable self, tracking what's going on with one's body" - and sharing it with doctors, other runners, and databases that can guide personal improvement - is speeding the sports- wearables market, Lombard added.
TE Connectivity Ltd., a $14 billion (yearly sales) company in Berwyn that makes connectors and sensors for computers, cars, planes, smartphones, and all things electronic, is betting on the wearable future.
"This all uses our stuff - plugs, antennas, sensors, little connectors that tie things together. We're enabling the wearables of tomorrow," said Eric Braddom, TE's vice president for consumer strategy. "This is emerging, it's incredibly fast-growing, and it's going to change our lives in many ways."
The company last month opened TE Wearables Lab in Menlo Park, California's high-tech district. TE staffed it with electrical and mechanical engineers, textile and magnetics specialists, gave them high-tech looms and 3-D printers, and invited clients like Lenovo Group, the world's largest personal-computers shipper, to visit and brainstorm.
"TE has an innovative approach to wireless charging in wearables. TE is definitely focused on solving the tough challenges," says ZhePeng "Joe" Wang, the director of the Emerging Computing Platform at Lenovo's research arm and one of the lab's early visitors.
Braddom, who works in Menlo Park, visited TE headquarters in Berwyn to show off a pack of commercial gadgets his engineers have altered to make them, well, more wearable.
Braddom takes out a Pebble Smartwatch. The off-the-shelf version has to be plugged into a charger, like a cellphone. The lab removed the charger port and refitted it with a plugless wireless charger, which makes it much easier to waterproof.
TE also reduced the metal wireless-charging coils and antennas that bulk up many handheld devices, to flat or sprayed-on wires. A new microwave charger is a tenth the size of the
plug charger it replaces, but offers similar watts and storage, Braddom said.
"We are investing a lot in this business," said James O'Toole, president of TE Connectivity Consumer Solutions. "We are breaking the brains of the device apart from the battery."
TE's goal is to speed up chargers and sensors, and make them more rugged - so they can go through the wash, or an engine room, or a war zone.
"Nobody knows what form is going to take off - a watch, a glass, a garment?" O'Toole said. "Will it be circular? Will it have malleable screens?"