At my first technology editor job back in 1990, my boss at the time was obsessed with the concept of the Dick Tracy wristwatch. Dick Tracy was a popular comic strip that ran from the late 30s up until 1972. Now, let me be clear, even I’m not old enough to be from the era when Dick Tracy was part of popular culture. But my boss was. For those of you who don’t know, the 2-Way Wrist Radio was one of the comic strip’s most iconic items. It was worn by Tracy and members of the police force and in 1964 the 2-Way Wrist Radio was upgraded to a 2-Way Wrist TV. When chip companies came to visit our editorial offices—this is back when press tours were still a thing—in many editorial meetings with those companies, my boss would quite often ask the hypothetical question: “When are we going to get the Dick Tracy wristwatch?”
Confident that Moore’s Law would go on forever, semiconductor companies back then were always hungry to get their share of the mobile electronic device market—although the “device” of the day kept changing. My boss’s Dick Tracy wristwatch question was a clever way to spur discussion about chip integration, extreme low power, wireless communication and even full motion video. Full motion video on a mobile device in particular was a technology that many were skeptical could ever happen. In that early 90s period, the DRAM was the main driver of semiconductor process technology, and, in turn, the desktop PC was by far the dominant market for DRAMs. As a result, there was a tendency to view all future computing through the lens of the PC. It would be more than a decade later before flash memory surpassed DRAMs as the main driver of the chip business, and that was because the market size of mobile devices began to eclipse PCs.
As most of you know, Circuit Cellar has BYTE magazine as a part its origin story. Steve Ciarcia had a popular column called Circuit Cellar in BYTE magazine. When Steve founded this magazine three decades ago, he gave it the Circuit Cellar name. The April 1981 issue of BYTE magazine famously had a picture of basically a wristwatch with a CRT screen and keyboard with a mini-floppy disk being inserted into its side. That’s a vivid example that we humans are notoriously really bad at predicting what future technologies will look like. We have an inherent bias imposing what we have now on our view of the future.
Fast forward today and obviously we have the Dick Tracy Wristwatch and so much more—the Apple Watch being the most vivid example. Today’s wearable devices span across the consumer, fitness and medical markets and all need a mix of low-power, low-cost and high-speed processing. But even though technology has come a long way, the design challenges are still tricky. Wearable electronic devices of today all share some common aspects. They have an extremely low budget for power consumption, they tend not to be suited for replaceable batteries and therefore must be rechargeable. They also usually require some kind of wireless connectivity.
Today’s wearables including a variety of products including smartwatches, physical activity monitors, heart rate monitors, smart headphones and more. Microcontrollers for these devices have to have extremely low power and high integration. At the same time, power solutions servicing this market require mastery of low quiescent current design techniques and high integration. To meet those needs chip vendors—primarily from the microcontroller and analog markets—keep advancing solutions that consume extremely low levels and power and manage that power.
One amusing aspect of the Dick Tracy wristwatch was that it was referred as a 2-Way Radio (and later a 2-Way TV). With Internet connectivity, today’s smartwatches basically are connected to an infinite number of network nodes. I can’t claim to be a better predictor of the future than the editors of 1981’s BYTE. But now I need to come up with a new question to ask chip vendors, and I don’t know what the question should be. Perhaps: “When are we going to get the Star Wars holographic 3D image messaging system?”. And in wristwatch form please.
This appears in the May (334) issue of Circuit Cellar magazine
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Jeff served as Editor-in-Chief for both LinuxGizmos.com and its sister publication, Circuit Cellar magazine 6/2017—3/2022. In nearly three decades of covering the embedded electronics and computing industry, Jeff has also held senior editorial positions at EE Times, Computer Design, Electronic Design, Embedded Systems Development, and COTS Journal. His knowledge spans a broad range of electronics and computing topics, including CPUs, MCUs, memory, storage, graphics, power supplies, software development, and real-time OSes.