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.