Open Source wearable platforms: time for your own gadgets

By on May 2, 2014

When I think about the world that we are now living, I have to (I literally must) think about open source technologies, open source frameworks and products such good that became excellent platforms to build your own distrupting software, or board. We are living the same situation with wearable devices, in such a way that I am inclined to think about all of this stuff and easily identify a cyclic, predictable behavior. Once a technology or a concept starts to become part of the traditional software (and hardware) stack, suddenly clones begin to appear; and there’s a strong chance that the first to appear (as the first clone, or even the original product) is open source. Why? Well, because the well-tested open workflow allows hardware and software producers to rapidly iterate around a platform that has been already built from the ground up, and this enables the team to focus strongly on the product.

Wearable technlogies are exactly like that: after we saw pretty nice things like Jawbone, Fitbit and Autographer that literally conquered the international market, many players entered this segment producing their own brand-related wearable stuff. Listening to rumors about Apple’s next step into the technology landscape, they will make an iWatch, as Samsung did with their Galaxy Gear. Google itself answered this kind of new trend with a particular and wonderful release of an Android Wear sneak preview. Once (some years ago), a friend of mine was driving while we were together on a trip; he said “you know what? Soon pluggable devices for our smartphone will be so popular, and we’ll have to carry a toolbox for all our phone-related stuff”. Luckily, the industry insisted less on pluggable devices, while it developed a strong focus on our body and sensors measuring our life. In a way, our own body became our toolbox.

We were talking about new technologies and open ecosystems growing up rapidly around new needs and new product types: let’s see some examples regarding hardware and software platforms to build awesome products – why not – with a considerably little effort.

FLORA: an Arduino-compatible microcontroller

A platform of interest for wearable gadgets is FLORA: Adafruit put a lot of effort on Arduino along time, releasing more than 100 tutorials and over 25 libraries for the Arduino IDE, so they decided to produce their own wearable platform. The cool aspect about FLORA is that this tiny microcontroller is fully compatible with Arduino, so no matter the operating system you will immediately be able to bootstrap your wearable startup if you have the Arduino IDE installed on your computer, and if you know how to develop software for the original Arduino – and this is awesome, because as you know in an open ecosystem the knowledge reuse is on of the most important things. We have an on-board regulator too, which means that FLORA is very beginner-friendly, so if you connect a battery wrong or if you connect a 9V monster to FLORA, this will not result in damage; over this, FLORA is fabric-friendly too,as the official site states:

FLORA is fabric friendly– all the components on board are flush to the PCB and won’t snag delicate garments (it does not use FTDI headers).

flora wearable platform

Havin’ a look at the details, on the board we have 4 LEDs: power good, digital signal LED for bootloader feedback, data rx/tx. If we are power users, we can reprogram it all thanks to a ICSP controller; we have 14 sewing tap pads for electrical connections and attachments: so we can expand our board to make our wearable product even more powerful, or we can maintain an easy access to the controller so people can hack it in many ways, growing a strong community around our piece of hardware.

Android Wear

One of the most disruptive things the last months brought to us was the announcement of Android Wear. In my opinion, this should not be called “Wear” because, well, at least watching the official videos and lookin’ at the hardware and software specifications, this seems more like an Android Watch than other things; but a watch can be a gadget too (look at the Galaxy Gear), and with Android Wear we can build our wearable applications strongly connected with our Android phones. In this way, our body can interact more and more with our smartphone, enriching our user experience and making it full of details.

There is a constraint about this: we are talking about open source wearable platforms, but we don’t know how this system will be distributed and we can be pretty sure that this will not be released as open hardware. I include Android Wear in my list because even if it will run on closed hardware, that hardware will be powered by open source software, and we could develop software for our Android-related smartwatch with open source tools, exactly as we do with our smartphones. This will be interesting, because we will have a wide range of sensors to hack on and to include in our applications, from motion sensors to heart rate monitors.

WaRP: Wearables Reference Platform

Communities are the next big thing in every field, especially in manufacturing: while companies keep putting their tiny controllers on the martket, people arrange themselves and do their job in a different form and in a potentially very nice way. WaRP, indeed, as “WearAbles Reference Platform”, is an hardware and software solution to provide a platform for your wearable gadgets. The model of this board is interesting because, even if it is truly tiny, it implements a structure that I appreciate so much. We can find a main board, which we can buy from the official site (well, not now… in a couple of months maybe? I really hope so), and in the official package (I believe, that’s explained on the official page but I could not find more on this) we can include a sample daughtercard which can be attached to the main card to empower our final work; but here comes the funny part: we can add more daughtercards to get things done in our project, and clearly this enables the community to innovate on our own wearable product “forking” it in such a way.

I really appreciate this approach to the product, and yes, I’m a big fan of open source and open hardware, so I’m glad to notice that the official page states a sentence to clarify that all the hardware, the software sources and the SDK (and all the related stuff, I believe) will be open sourced as soon as possible. And I’m glad to notice as well that some well-known producers have started this journey choosing to bootstrap a solid community instead of being the umpteenth player in a closed market. The hardware is nice at all: we can see Freescale’s i.MX 6SoloLite application processor for the main board, while the sample daughterboard brings a Freescale’s Kinetis KL16 MCU microcontroller that is used as a sensor hub, and as a wireless charging MCU.
warp wearable board

Freescale is not the only company challenged in this awesome project: even if it provided the sensors and the application processor along with controllers and wireless charging, Revolution Robotics worked on the hardware while Kynetics provided the software for this tiny marvellous wearable device construction kit. Pretty cool, huh?

About Alessio Biancalana

A nerd that likes very much to tinker and solve problems.