The chip is not officially announced yet, with no datasheets or block diagrams publicly available.
Aster integrates ARM7 ESJ, Bluetooth 4.0/Bluetooth Low Energy, power management IC, and memory (4 Mbytes of flash and 4 Mbytes of SRAM). Housed in a 5.4 x 6 mm package, MediaTek describes Aster as the "smallest SoC" with "highest integration" for wearable devices.
Aster also comes with a comprehensive Application Framework. Its Run-Time Environment will make it easy for users to install and upgrade apps and run them on wearable devices, according to MediaTek.
With an ear close to the ground in China, Taiwan’s consumer chip behemoth MediaTek appears to know about something not readily evident to most system vendors and chip companies in the West: a surge in Chinese consumer demand for new gizmos designed to leverage the power of smartphones.
"Innovation can come up very quickly in China compared to Western society," Cliff Lin, senior director of MediaTek’s US corporate marketing, told EE Times.
Let a thousand flowers bloom
MediaTek’s Aster, together with the company’s wearable "turnkey solutions," is designed to let a thousand flowers bloom in a number of new consumer devices, ranging from a Bluetooth dialer to a smartwatch. These devices are meant to be wirelessly connected to a smartphone, a device already ubiquitous.
It’s important to note that these wearable devices MediaTek has in mind are not positioned to replace smartphones – an idea sharply divergent from the hopeful thinking, more popular in the West, that wearable devices will supplant phones.
A Bluetooth dialer, for example, is, technically, not a phone. But the sleek, convenient device helps a user dial or receive a call without forcing her to haul a bulky tablet or phablet out of her bag.
Some in the industry, especially in the West, might argue that calling such a device – whose function appears to be simply a remote-control unit inside an already available smartphone — "wearable" is an overstatement.
After all, today’s wearable devices, if loosely defined, are all over the map – ranging from wristwatches, shoes, and glasses to headbands, clothing, and home healthcare devices – with no killer wearable form factor on the horizon, at least not yet.
Different wearable devices demand a different set of sensors. They also come in different shapes and sizes, as they will be worn on different parts of the body. Their evolutionary trajectory suggests that they will be far more diverse and complex than mere remote-control units in smartphones.
And the fact is, many smartwatches on the market today are designed for just that purpose. Besides email, voice mail, and social network message notifications, a smartwatch can control various functions of a smartphone remotely.
MediaTek’s Lin added that its Aster is even capable of offering a "viewfinder function" on a wearable device, when wirelessly connected to a smartphone’s camera. By reducing the image size, the picture can be transferred via Bluetooth from a camera in the smartphone to a small display of the new smartwatch. It allows a user to remotely frame a picture right on a smartwatch display, instead of awkwardly tilting a bulky phablet in the air.
Although MediaTek displayed Aster at its suite during the International CES earlier this month, the company is not giving out any more details of the SoC. When asked about its price, Lin noted that Aster is "suitably priced for end-products ranging from $20 to $50." The SoC’s mass production is slated for the third quarter of 2014.
Mediatek’s Aster vs. Freescale’s WaRP
At a time when wearable devices are expected to come in various shapes and functions, how could a single SoC platform such as Aster, which doesn’t even come with sensors, address its diversified requirements?
For example, Freescale’s wearable reference platform, dubbed WaRP, is at least designed for a flexible form factor, extended battery life, and expandable architecture. Freescale’s platform comes with two boards. The main board is built on Freescale’s i.MX 6SoloLite ARM Cortex-A9 apps processor as the core processing unit. A replaceable daughter card offers a hub sensor, wireless charging, and motion sensing pedometer.
When asked to compare MediaTek’s Aster with WaRP, Lin said, a reference design like Freescale’s WaRP is good for "testing functions and building a prototype." But when it comes to bringing it as a commercial mass-production product, Aster will be right there to help customers, he asserted.
Although Aster is a standalone SoC, Lin said, "We offer our own turnkey solution" to go with it. MediaTek provides customers with everything from firmware to drivers and a qualified vendor list. The list will allow OEMs to pick and choose necessary components, already pre-qualified by MediaTek, that are made sure to work together with Aster. No additional design work will be needed.
MediaTek’s turnkey solution is what led the Taiwanese company to its wild success in the Chinese smartphone market over the last few years. By taking a page from the same playbook, the company plans to secure a strong foothold in the wearable market.
The initial phase of the wearable market, enabled by MediaTek’s Aster, promises to be substantially simpler than the current Western perception of the next big wearable device. And at a price point under $50, Aster might be just what the doctor ordered to get things moving in a still nebulous market.
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