Ian Ferguson, VP of Segment Marketing for ARM talks to Africa Outlook about the ‘Wearables for Good’ challenge in Africa, and how it is inspiring the possible applications of wearable tech on a developing continent.
Q&A WITH IAN FERGUSON, ARM
Firstly, tell me about ARM and the Company’s reach for those who may have not heard of you directly?
Ian Ferguson (IF): Our main business is in the design of processor technologies, creating the blueprint for intelligence found in billions of silicon chips in anything from tiny sensor-driven devices to smartphones, cars and even wind turbines. To date, just over 400 companies around the world have licensed our hardware and software technologies, and they include some of the world’s most famous companies. Together with our partners we have been involved in the design, creation and shipping of some 65 billion chips. That is around 10 chips for every person on Earth.
Currently, more than 95 percent of the world’s smartphones are powered by ARM technology which covers central processing units (CPUs), graphics processors (GPUs) and other software and hardware technologies managing critical elements including data security. In the wearables segment, products such as the Fitbit, the Pebble Watch and the Omate Shine are all based on ARM technology. By providing foundational technology, we enable a rich ecosystem and this accelerates the pace of innovation and optimises costs for the customer.
Why did you decide to collaborate with UNICEF on the Wearables for Good challenge?
IF: All of the above should tell you that we are ambitious, we are good at partnering with other organisations and we want to make a difference. This is where the genesis of the UNICEF collaboration began and this first strand the Wearables for Good challenge, which also includes design firm, frog.
Together with our partners, we wanted to help people, to encourage creativity and to move the tech sector to understand that doing good is good for business. We decided to do this by creating a new type of global competition: one that is open to all, expert and amateur alike; it aims to bring about a social benefit through targeted use of a new wearable technology which will lead to new technology ideas that are scalable and can work in the most remote locations. This is the first strand of a multi-year partnership between UNICEF and ARM.
There are some fundamental principles underpinning this, mainly around the three pillars of global citizenship: information, opportunity and choice. At its heart is the idea that technology can improve people’s lives in new ways, going beyond the idea of a nice-to-have device, into something that can change the lives of some of the world’s most vulnerable people. Crucially, this is a challenge that is also being sent out to anyone with a good idea. They don’t need to be an expert; they just need to care enough to take part.
The challenge is jointly led and that’s important. We believe the partners all bring something unique. UNICEF has huge worldwide reach and understands how to implement humanitarian programmes at scale. ARM has a breadth and depth of technology expertise in hardware and software design. Frog brings its in-depth knowledge of design and functionality, and together we all want to encourage and inspire individuals and companies to deal with some of the world’s most difficult problems.
Tell me more about the new initiative, its geographic reach and demographic? Why do you see children as your key target audience for wearable tech?
IF: Our attempt is to make this as broad as possible. We are not prioritising one region over another; the only requirements are that the designs be cost-effective, rugged and durable, low-powered, and scalable. In terms of the focus on children, there are challenges (famine, health, sanitation) around the world which can have profound and life-threatening impacts on the very young. This includes solutions addressing the number of children that die when born prematurely, or fall ill from poor quality water supplies and so on. Essentially we expect this competition to attract a diverse range of solutions, many of which are transferrable across the world.
What impact has the Wearables for Good challenge made in Africa so far?
IF: There are some great case studies that demonstrate the impact that new technologies can have on communities. The deployment of very low cost smartphones, coupled with what is effectively an egg cup plugged into the microphone socket, are enabling people in South African townships to get accurate information about the health of their hearts without needing to visit specialist facilities that may be a long way away. Another example is a fingerprint-reading device from Simprints. It’s being rolled out to more accurately link people to their medical records. This is proving hugely useful in establishing the identities of patients – many of whom are illiterate – accessing medical care and avoiding potential mistakes.
We are of course as aware as anybody that there are difficulties when bringing the latest technologies to Africa, where there can be issues with education, awareness and connectivity. For these reasons, we expect to see many applications come through the Wearables for Good initiative that can cope with limited connectivity, are intuitively easy to use and also require minimal power. We’ve seen a great example of this with the Talking Book project (developed by Literacy Bridge), which is a very low power device that is preloaded up with farming, education and healthcare information in local dialects. The device is somewhat like a talking encyclopedia that’s customised for each village with specified content and dialect.
Given the tech revolution, particularly in Africa, where do you see wearable tech on the continent in the next five-10 years and what factors led you to this conclusion?
IF: There are several positive moves underway to help technology become more accessible in Africa. More and more big companies are looking to deliver internet connectivity to the continent than ever before. There has been – and still is – an incredible erosion of pricing and increased functionality of smartphones, putting the power of a PC in the hands of more people around the world; giving otherwise isolated people access to connectivity and the internet along with personal computing capabilities. The arrival of smaller, lower power, ‘battery-less’ sensing technology – using movement or sunlight etc. to charge – is having a huge impact on the ability to bring this innovation to more remote areas. These are just some of the ways that technology has been empowering individuals.
In the 10 year timeframe of the Wearables for Good initiative, however, I hope to see:
- The percentage of premature babies dying decrease significantly;
- Earlier detection and treatment of health issues (HIV, malaria, water-borne bacteria);
- Increased crop yields to help communities be more self-sufficient than they are today through the connecting of individuals – via smartphone or wearable tech – to important data such as irrigation, animal wellbeing and the weather.
Moreover, there should be no reason why this type of solution cannot be implemented in other areas of the world. That said, there are a very different set of resource constraints and challenges that vary across the world’s developing nations such as lack of power sources or an unreliable supply of power, cost challenges, the availability of cellular connectivity and so on. Most importantly, the Wearables for Good initiative has a job to understand those local use cases and to develop a game-changing solution to specifically address issues on a case-by case basis.
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