Decades between charges, powering up your wearables from your body's energy. It sounds like the stuff of sci-fi but it's coming. Atmel's new chips, powered by ARM technology, are extremely low power and can last over ten years on a single charge.
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The SAM L-21 is the lowest power microprocessor ever, according to benchmark tests, and has varying levels of sleep to help to conserve energy. That means that wearables running on this Atmel chip can switch between five modes - not just one, all power mode and one that shows the time and nothing else. For instance, it could still be communicating over Bluetooth, Wi-Fi or 3G/4G so that your alerts or fitness data is synced and up-to-date when you need it.
First demonstrated at CES this year, it's so low power it can even be powered from energy capture off the body - something that designers interested in making wearables work in harmony with our bodies have on their wearable wishlists.
It's a spot-on solution for sensor-based wearables and internet of things devices which don't need a lot of power. The Atmel chip only offers a 42Mhz Cortex CPU, 256KB of flash memory, 32KB of RAM and 8KB of low power RAM. Developers who are happy with the trade-off will be able to start working with it in the next few months.
This idea of low power, always-on chips is an area Intel is also extremely interested in. It hasn't revealed what the battery life it's aiming for, unlikely to be in the decades, but any innovation in this area will be welcomed with open arms.
The immediate problem
Of course this is all very fun to look forward to but we're buying wearables now, in 2015, and in serious numbers - 2.3m Apple Watches in one week. And battery life will no doubt become the biggest bugbear with Apple's first smartwatch.
It's an overnight fashion sensation, celebrities are wearing it, the apps and games already look to sail past the quality of anything we've seen on Android Wear. But we're going to have to charge it once a night.
Luckily, ARM is involved in another, more short term tactic aiming to increase the battery life of current-gen wearables by 60%. ARM has just acquired two companies involved in low power wireless communications to help make this Cordio tech a reality: Sunrise Micro Devices which has made sub-one volt Bluetooth radios and Wicentric which works with the Bluetooth Smart tech to run on them.
Put together, this Cordio system can eke out 60% more battery life on a single charge than what you get from the current generation of devices using Bluetooth radios operating at 1.2 volts. ARM says Cordio 'sips' energy from the battery.
Battery life is only going to become more of a killer problem as millions more wearables are sold in 2015. We need more efficient devices to be 'our next' and the likes of the decade-long Atmel chip to solve the problem once and for all.