Qualcomm may not seem like a company that would make a big splash in the smartwatch Arm Race. After all, Qualcomm has long been known to make the pieces that go inside people’s gadgets, not the gadgets themselves. Its Snapdragon computer processors have hit almost every major smartphone released in 2013, for instance. But it is Qualcomm’s technical prowess and research-driven approach that gives its smartwatch—the Qualcomm Toq—a unique approach that makes it worth a look.

The Toq is a $350 smartwatch that will be available to consumers on Cyber Monday—December 2. It can work in conjunction with many Android smartphones to deliver notifications, take phone calls and run a variety of apps. It uses an always-on display that uses a low-power technology to bring crisp images to the Toq’s screen. As smartwatches go, it is one of the more advanced in an device category that is still nascent. 

But what the smartwatch can do is nowhere near as interesting as how the Toq does it.

Bringing MEMS To Display

Smartphones and tablets traditionally use one of a variety of display technologies. Usually they are built with liquid crystal (LCD) or organic light-emitting diodes (OLED). These displays have made great strides in recent years to bring devices that have extremely clear and crisp screens that use less power than previous generations. The Toq doesn’t use these standards but rather a proprietary Qualcomm technology it calls Mirasol based on MEMS—microeletromechanical systems—to deliver its low-power solution called Interferometric Modulation (IMOD).

Regular ReadWrite readers might be familiar with the concept of MEMS: the microscopic machines that could one day be the basis for Smart Dust. As we explained as part of our Future Tech series, Smart Dust is like taking the concept of the Internet Of Things to the very air we breathe. MEMS would act as sensors floating in the air to perform a variety of functions like environmental monitoring or machine tuning. While we focused on the concept of Smart Dust, MEMS are not limited to these types of sensory applications.

The Toq uses MEMS to produce the IMOD effect. Interferometric Modulation creates colors in a different way than LCDS or OLEDS. Essentially, the MEMS that comprise the display have two elements: coated glass on top and reflective membranes on bottom. An air pocket between the two layers is what creates colors depending on what type of electrical charge is applied to the pixel. Basically, the reflected light is creating its own image with very little power input as opposed to an LCD where colors are created through filters and must have a continual power source to create them. Essentially, the MEMS are the structure of the pixel while the thin-filmed optics are what help manipulate the light into an image. 

The core of a Mirasol pixel. The core of a Mirasol pixel.

The result is the IMOD display technology. It is called Interferometric Modulation because it is basically interfering with light to change (modulate) it as opposed to manipulating it as other emissive and non-emissive screens like LCD and OLED do. 

The concept of MEMS display has been around for more than a decade but came to a tangible reality in 2009 when Qualcomm MEMS—a subsidiary of the chipmaker—released a white paper outlining the benefits of IMOD. Qualcomm MEMS Technologies began in 1996 as Iridigm Display Corporation and changed its name in 2004.

The Purpose Of Toq

Qualcomm would love to see the Toq become a huge consumer hit. That is not likely to happen and Qualcomm knows it. It’s a smartwatch and we have not yet seen a smartwatch that has captured the imagination of the mass market (the Galaxy Gear is certainly not it).

The Toq is a proof-of-concept device that shows off the IMOD and MEMS technology while combining advanced wireless charging technology and cutting edge use of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi for connectivity. Basically, Qualcomm wants to show off to other manufacturers that it has a wide range of technologies that can be of benefit to their smartphones and tablets or potential smartwatches. 

Qualcomm’s value proposition is that it is the company that creates the guts of mobile devices. Through the Toq, it is attempting to show how its technologies from wireless charging to MEMS-based IMOD screens are best in class. If you are actually looking to purchase a smartwatch in 2013, the Toq will be one of the best on the market. Otherwise, it is more likely a device that serves to promote Qualcomm’s goals to power the brains of your devices for decades.