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Sunday, Feb 25, 2024

Wireless & Wearable

Qualcomm Inc. executive Nikhil Jain recalls the day that then-CEO Paul Jacobs called him to ask whether he would like to work on a watch.

It was the day he immersed himself in the next wave of wearable technology.

As Jain recounted his conversation with Jacobs two and a half years later during a technology networking group, he remembered mentally examining his options. What if he said no? What if he said yes?

Having agreed, one thing he knows today is that he had no idea what he was getting into, Jain said. He emerged from his meeting with notes that included “Mirasol,” “watch” and “always on.”

Two and a half years later, Qualcomm (Nasdaq: QCOM) has a limited-edition wrist-worn device called Toq. More than a watch, its display is also a second screen for a user’s Android smartphone.

Qualcomm is one of several San Diego area companies, large and small, that hope to cash in on the growing phenomenon of wearable devices.

An Encinitas startup called Owaves Inc., for example, has set an ambitious goal of helping clients live more healthfully with a wearable device that may be on the market by this time next year. Meanwhile, Carlsbad-based Razer Inc. — a company whose main products until now have been computers optimized for gaming and peripherals such as headphones and mice — announced plans at the Las Vegas consumer electronics show to release a smart wristband by the end of the first quarter.

ABI Research predicts that companies will ship 90 million wearable computing devices in 2014. Activity trackers will be the most popular of these, the research house said. Jawbone, Nike Inc. and Fitbit Inc. make such activity-tracking bracelets — and the critical software that goes with them. Qualcomm has invested an undisclosed amount in Fitbit.

Then there is the world of smart glasses. Makers such as Google Inc. (Nasdaq: GOOG) will ship a modest 2 million units this year and should see fast growth in 2015 and beyond, the research house said. Commercial enterprises — rather than consumers — will be the first to adopt smart glasses, ABI said. Locally, Sullivan Solar Power is starting to assign Google Glasses to its technicians.

Banding People Together

Wearable devices seem to be proliferating.

“Wearable technology will be characterized by the diversity of products,” ABI wrote, “but only the product categories with a clear use-case and, therefore, target audience will succeed.”

It’s expected to be a good year for athletic wristbands, such as those that count the number of steps a user takes or the number of hours slept.

Razer’s band, called Nabu, does that too. But the company wants its device to do a little more work, acting as a communication device that relays messages from a smartphone.

The Nabu has two displays, a public one at the knuckle side of the wrist and a private display inside the wrist. The public face will display an icon showing an incoming call or email, while the private side will offer more details, showing who is calling or sending a message. Also, the Nabu will enable wearers to find other Nabu wearers in the vicinity. The device can help people find friends, or even flirt, Razer’s website says.

Razer declined to say how much it has invested in the Nabu or how it plans to profit from it. In fact, the company declined to elaborate on information it had already made public, saying it will provide updates later.

The company said it’s making the Nabu available to software programmers. Earlier this month, Razer said that more than 10,000 developers had signed up to write applications for the device.

Health Reminders You Wear

Owaves and its main financial backer, physician Royan Kamyar, are still fine-tuning their wearable device, which is meant to promote wellness. They want to hit the market by spring 2015.

Kamyar declined an invitation to show his product at last month’s Las Vegas consumer electronics show, he said. The business is still in stealth mode and is revealing only certain aspects of its product. In fact, Owaves and its industrial designer are still deciding the final form the product will take.

The device will provide reminders — described by Kamyar as “an ambient signal” and “an aesthetically pleasing kind of cue” — to live a healthy lifestyle. For example, the device might offer a nudge when its user encounters an enticing billboard from a big burger joint. But the nudge has to be pleasant.

“People don’t like nanny devices,” Kamyar said.

While FitBit and Jawbone make “retrospective” devices, which help people look back on their day, Kamyar said his device will look forward.

“We’re trying to create a more prospective platform,” he said.

Sales of the device will provide one revenue stream, Kamyar said. There will also be an in-app store to sell premium content based on solid medical research, and he spoke of possibly teaming with well-known, well-regarded medical institutions to create such content.

Kamyar said his target market is very specific — people attracted to what’s referred to as the lifestyle of health and sustainability — or “Lohas” in marketing shorthand. They’re the people attracted to organic food, clean transportation, recycled products, yoga and mindfulness, which might be described as the opposite of multitasked and stressed-out. In a sense, Owaves’ product may be standing the model of the connected device on its head in that Kamyar said its intent is to “recenter instead of hyperconnect the user.”

Organizers of an upcoming Lohas-themed conference said 13 to 19 percent of U.S. adults are Lohas consumers and that the market is worth $290 billion, with some $117 billion of that devoted to personal health.

The Owaves device builds on Kamyar’s personal experience. After getting his medical degree from Baylor College of Medicine, Kamyar took an internship at St. Vincent’s hospital in New York. He recalled 80-hour weeks and shifts that changed from day to night. His eating and sleeping habits deteriorated, taking a toll on his health. When he started the MBA program at the University of California, San Diego’s Rady School of Management, Kamyar developed a system to keep himself healthy. He subsequently digitized that system, and putting it on a wearable device “just made sense.”

The Owaves staff consists of six people, who are complemented by consultants, interns and advisers.

Toq is More Than a Clock

Best known as a chipmaker, Sorrento Mesa-based Qualcomm could not resist developing its own wearable device. It introduced the Toq — pronounced “tock” — smart watch in September.

Wearables are “an obvious adjacent category” to the company’s current business, a spokeswoman said.

The Toq can pull data such as emails, calendar entries, weather reports and stock quotes from a user’s Android smartphone. And it can tell time.

Central to the product is Qualcomm’s Mirasol touchscreen display. Mirasol differs from conventional displays in that it’s made of thousands of tiny mirrors. Unlike a conventional backlit display, the Mirasol display reflects sunlight or room light, which Qualcomm executives say, enables the display to use little power, prolonging battery life.

Qualcomm declined to say how much it spent on the Toq project, and it bills the watch as a limited-edition model. One point of the creating it, executives said, was to show other manufacturers that such a smart watch is possible.

Going forward, Qualcomm could provide reference designs for smart watches and make money by selling components, notably Mirasol displays, to manufacturers. That approach would be classic Qualcomm. Years ago, the company made cellphone handsets using its code division multiple access wireless technology to prove it was doable. Then the company backed out of the market, happy to sell CDMA chips and offer its reference designs for its customers’ engineers.

For Jain, work on the Toq has offered more than monetary rewards. He reflected on that a few weeks ago in remarks to the South Coast chapter of the Indus Entrepreneurs.

When he was younger, Jain lived in northern India. During that time he liked to borrow the latest issue of Popular Science magazine. He was hooked on its list of top 100 gadgets.

Many years later and half a world away, Jain found his product, the Toq, in those pages — on that same list.


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