Wearable Tech World Feature Article
December 03, 2013

Qualcomm's Toq Smartwatch - It's Not about the Smartwatch, It's about the Magical Display

Back in 2009 - 2010, which seems to us unequivocally ancient as far as looking back in time relative to today's wearable technology world, Qualcomm first showed off its new Mirasol display technology. Mirasol is quite interesting because it doesn't use any light source and is always on. Officially it is referred to by Qualcomm as "Qualcomm Mirasol: IMOD."

You may be thinking at this point, "I.M.O.D.eh?" Fair enough - in fact you should be thinking exactly this. Mirasol was developed by Qualcomm's micro-electro-mechanical system (MEMS) group and is a new display technology that competes with liquid-crystal (LCD), organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs), electrophoretic (EPD) and cholesteric liquid-crystal (ChLCDs) displays. Mirasol was originally developed for use with e-readers and mobile devices, but since 2010 and since the explosion of the wearable tech market Mirasol may find its true niche in the wearable tech space.

So, IMOD then - it stands for Interferometic Modulation. Essentially this means that Mirasol is a technology that doesn't generate light but rather reflects the existing light that is all around you. Such a capability means two very important things: it is a very low power technology and it can be used in bright sunlight.

The Mirasol display technology is based on biomimetics - that is, technology that imitates nature. The natural phenomenon that makes a butterfly’s wings or a peacock’s feathers shimmer and give off their rich, striking colors is the same exact quality that drives how Mirasol displays generate color. How do butterflies and peacocks do it? Through microscopic structures on their wings and feathers they are each able to create truly vivid colors simply by causing light to interfere with itself. This "interference" is the reason the term "interferometric" comes into play.

From where Qualcomm sits, there is a wide range of manufacturing benefits surrounding Mirasol, but we won't concern ourselves with these here. Rather, we'll provide a simple list of benefits that accrue to both device makers and device users:

  • Low Power Consumption: Mirasol displays use just a fraction of the power needed by conventional technologies. Fort most use cases no external illumination is needed. Further, Mirasol does not require continuous refreshing - very little power is required to drive it. It is expected that devices that utilize Mirasolw will run for at least seven days and likely more before needing charging;
  • Thinner and Lighter: Because there is no need for backlighting (external illumination) Mirasol will significantly reduce overall display size and weight, making it especially useful for mobile devices and especially for wearable tech devices;
  • High Readability: Mirasol delivers almost the same contrast ratio and reflectivity as a newspaper - it will be easy to read in almost all lighting situations; 
  • Response Time: Mirasol delivers fast response times and will reduce blurring when viewing fast-moving video and gaming animation applications. Mirasol's response time is, for example from 10 to as much as 1000 times faster than competitive LCD technologies;
  • Scalable: Once Mirasol displays are perfected for smaller screens, Qualcomm fully expects that they will be easily scalable to larger applications such as TVs and outdoor digital signs.

That is certainly a heady collection of benefits. All that truly needs to happen is for Qualcomm to deliver the goods. We are familiar with at least one smartwatch maker than was relying on using Mirasol but that has had to wait on the displays.

Here is a video of TMC CEO Rich Tehrani interviewing Qualcomm on the Mirasol technology. No, we did not shoot the video at our summer 2013 Wearable Tech event. Rather we shot this back in 2010! The tech world has clearly been waiting a long time for Mirasol to become real.

Tick Toq

Perhaps Qualcomm has been waiting to get its own reference design smartwatch out the door before looking to ship to the ultimate real players who can and will use the technology. In any case, the recently released Toq is certainly a very nice reference design. The Android-based smartwatch itself is in fact quite nice looking in our opinion, and though we haven't had a chance to play with it directly, we hope to do so soon enough.

Qualcomm has not put the watch out there so that it can start a new consumer business for itself - far from it; that is truly the last thing Qualcomm wants to do. Rather, it has put out a "high end" smartwatch that it hopes will demonstrate the possibilities inherent in the Mirasol technology. What Qualcomm wants to do is sell lots of Mirasol displays.

Just for the record, the Toq "starts" at $349. Hardly a mass market consumer price, but a good price for a reference design.


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