Broadcom has become a big name in consumer electronics and networking chips. But now the multibillion-dollar Irvine, Calif.-based chip design firm sees an even bigger opportunity in the market of silicon chips for wearable computing devices. The market for connected, wearable electronics is expected to hit $1.5 billion by 2014. And the company’s WICED Direct platform brings Internet connectivity to all sorts of previously unconnected appliances and wearable devices.
The whole electronics industry has been inspired by projects such as Google Glass and fitness devices, says Scott McGregor, chief executive of Broadcom — so much so that they’re eager to create chips that provide the computing and low-power needs of wearable devices. Broadcom plans to create the chips for accessories, clothing, and wearable sensors that connect and transfer data to smart mobile devices and the cloud. That will enable things like jewelry with proximity detection or helmets with action cameras and bracelets that unlock doors.
Broadcom doesn’t make those cool gadgets itself. But its components will be the foundation for them, and since chips must be created far in advance of the products that use them, McGregor can foresee the products that are coming out well ahead of the rest of us. His vision is consistent with that of Imagination Technologies, which also said this week that it is working on wearable chips.
We caught up with McGregor this week for an interview. Here’s an edited transcript.
VentureBeat: Do you want to start with a summary of what’s going on?
Scott McGregor: We’ve made an announcement about combining some technologies — what we call WICED [pronounced “wicked”] (Wireless Connectivity for Embedded Devices) with something called Wi-Fi Direct. Wi-Fi Direct, as you’re probably aware, enables peer-to-peer communication between devices. We believe that, as all these wearable devices come out, they’re going to want to communicate directly with each other, not just through access points.
We have that whole family of products. We have Bluetooth devices. We have wireless LAN devices. We’ve designed them in a very small footprint. For example, a Bluetooth device includes an ARM processor, and it’ll run on a coin battery for a year. You could create a form factor in something roughly the size of a button, including the battery, and seal it all in plastic. You’d have an Internet-connected device that you could embed into clothing and use to power things or sense things or drive lights or whatever you want to do.
The goals are threefold. We want low power. We want a small form factor. We want low cost. We need to drive the price to single-digit dollars for relatively low quantities. We think it’s going to lead to a whole lot of new guys creating these devices.
If you look at smartphones, two guys make 50 percent of all the smartphones in the world. Ten guys probably make 90 percent of all the smartphones in the world. Those guys are going to make watches and all kinds of other things. But I think the majority of new devices are going to come from little companies we’ve never heard of, via Kickstarter and other kinds of funding sources, spending tens of thousands of dollars rather than hundreds of millions of dollars. We’re going to see a lot of innovation. That’s why we’re excited about it. Our goal is, we want to do our best to enable all these new devices that are coming out.
VB: Do you have a name for this whole project, the combination of WICED and Wi-Fi Direct?
McGregor: We certainly name the individual technologies, but the real goal is to focus on wearable technology and the Internet of Things. There are a lot of names that people are using for those devices. Our goal is not so much to name all the categories as it is to make sure we get into as many of those devices as possible. We imagine that when you can build a lot of sensors like that into pocket-sized objects or things you wear on your body, you can create some really immersive game experiences.
VB: You foresee this as an open platform?
McGregor: The advantage of opening it up is that then you enable very widespread application development. That’s one of the magic things about smartphones. The guys who won in smartphones, the reason they won is because they had app ecosystems. They were able to innovate faster than the guys who didn’t have strong ecosystems. If you had a competitor to Google Glass that was open and enabled app developers, that would be a pretty significant threat unless Google does that themselves.
VB: What do you think is going to happen if, say, you apply Moore’s Law [the doubling of transistor counts every two years] to this for two or four years?
McGregor: The usual things – smaller, faster, cheaper – definitely apply. The interesting question is, how do you get the form factor? The glasses are still heavy. They run hot. The battery doesn’t last very long. Those are all things you could make significant improvements on. My view is that in enough decades, that stuff all gets embedded. That stuff should be in your retina. It should be directly integrated. But we’re not there yet. That’s a number of decades away.
Where does it go between now and then? It depends on what people are willing to wear and what they’re willing to put up with. Some people don’t like to wear glasses. Outside of Silicon Valley, if you wore those into a bar, you’d get beat up. Wearing them into a restaurant or a concert, somewhere that doesn’t allow recording devices — there are just a lot of social issues you have to deal with. We’re not quite prepared to cope with it. Going forward, because you can make cameras so small, it’s a fact of life that people will be able to record anything anywhere.
VB: Are these things meant for the home, or are they going to be wearable anywhere?
McGregor: Some will be things you can wear anywhere. A great example is the Nike FuelBand, or the Jawbone Up. People wear those all over the place. They’ve become part of a lifestyle. You’ll see things like rings. Some of the new watches and rings do things like enabling you to ride a transportation system or access your email and messages. Then there are other devices like home cooking thermometers, wireless thermometers. You can put it in a roast in the oven and sit in your living room with your gin and tonic and know when the roast is done.
It’s really varied. There’s going to be a lot of categories. If you make this thing so that you can put Internet connectivity into a consumer electronics device for less than 10 bucks, you’ll find it going into a lot of devices that already exist, and people are going to create new devices built around it.
VB: For something like Kinect, a home system with a sensor at the center of it, what do you expect to happen in that kind of environment? If you take a wearable device and bring it into the Xbox One environment, what could you do with something like that?
McGregor: I think two trends are going to converge. A lot of the Internet service providers, as they look for bundles – selling you TV and phone and internet connectivity and so on – are looking at extending that to home automation and home security. Today, from a lot of those guys, you can buy systems that connect in. Say you left your garage door open. You can close your garage door remotely. You can lock your front door.
That’s going to tie in with games. As you wear devices and have things that provide sensors, you can interact with games. You can interact with your home system. It knows where you are. It turns the lights on and off. Those all start to tie together. As some people have written, it’s context. By wearing the sensors that measure information, you allow the systems around you to have a lot of context about you and what you’re doing. Whether that enables a game player or the AirVision or the lights in the room you’re in, they’re all variations on the same concept. I think we’re going to see a lot of richness in that area.
VB: It looks like ARM will probably be ubiquitous here, but there doesn’t seem to be the equivalent of an Intel in this space just yet.
McGregor: I don’t think there will be. We don’t need one. The processor demands of these devices are quite low. They’re easily satisfied by any of many processors. The thing that makes these devices useful is their connectivity, not their processing. That’s why this is a very significant area for us.
VB: What’s your catchphrase there? “It’s the wireless network, stupid?”
McGregor: Our slogan at Broadcom, since the early days, is “Connecting Everything.” That’s proven to be prophetic. We’re connecting everything. Broadcom powers the Internet backbone. 99.98 percent of all Internet traffic in the world flows across Broadcom chips. We have number one positions in pretty much all the home, last-mile technologies. For us this is a logical extension of the wireless, electronic nervous system, extending out to these remote devices. Making them inexpensive, making them proliferate.
We think that the standards that are going to drive these kinds of things are not so much x86 or instruction sets on processors. None of that matters. What matters is what protocols and standards they use to talk to each other.
I think Broadcom is the innovator in this space. To the extent that wearables are dependent on their connectivity to make them work, we have a strong leadership position here. We’ve come out with a number of new protocols, new standards. Our goal is to drive this forward and push it such that we enable a lot of new devices to come into the market.
VB: The wireless network is the computer?
McGregor: Well, that was the old Sun phrase. “The network is the computer.” They were ahead of themselves on that.