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Are Wearables Restricted to Fitness and Health?

By John Blyler, Chief Content Officier

Wearables have secured a base in the fitness and health markets but growth is linked to associated technologies, related industries and emerging applications.

Wearable technology is a growth industry. ABI Research estimates the global market for wearables in health and fitness could reach 170 million devices by 2017. In its best case scenario, IHS pegs the wearable market at $60,000 million by 2018.

IHS defines wearable technology as being both wearable and smart, i.e., having “advanced circuitry, wireless connectivity and independent processing capability.” Wearables is a growth industry in part because it will drive other industries, such as batteries and sensor hubs. IHS estimates that wearable electronics will drive an additional $70 Million in battery revenue during the next four years (report from March 2014). Related sensor hub growth should increase from 2013 by 1,300 percent to shipments of 1.3 billion units in 2017.

These growth numbers are encouraging, but no one really knows the size of the market, notes Diya Soubra, ARM’s Product Marketing Manager. “Most predictions focus on watches and activity trackers since these are tangible items that can be counted. The truth is far from that. An easy way to see the potential is to take the ‘companion’ device – say smart watches, glasses and the like. If every user of a smart phone buys a companion device of some sort then you are talking about billions of companion devices.”

In addition to retail sales revenue from wearable devices for fitness and health, businesses are realizing the service-related saving associated with this technology.

“One of the biggest business drivers for wearable devices is to contain health insurance costs,” explains Willard Tu, ARM’s Director Embedded Segment Marketing. Employers realize that providing a low cost (sub $100) device to employees along with competitive or charity fund raising activities encourages better health which in turn saves money in medical insurance costs.”

Even without company sponsored competitions or fund raising activities, wearables are being used in sports to provide performance feedback to professional and amateur athletes. Tiny embedded devices are being used throughout the sports market such as Movea’s tennis “serve killer” device and Zepp Labs training system (see videos).

Babolat Play&Connect with Movea SmartFusion technology.

Wearable wellness applications extend well beyond human users. The ARM®-powered “Well Cow” system exists to monitor the health of the bovine stomach. This is but one example of a use case that doesn’t fit into the traditional view of wearables, notes Tu. “The Well Cow bolus wireless monitors rumen pH and temperature, allowing nutrition management of cows which will help improve their health and productivity. The system features a NXP LPC11U24 board which contains the ARM Cortex®-M0 processor, and allows farmers to monitor pH levels to avoid their cows developing acidosis.”

Bolus wireless "wearable" devices monitors rumen pH and temperature in a cow's stomach.

Displaying fitness and health information is another market related to wearables. Consider the nascent smart watch market. “These devices are really about conveying info on your smart phone in an easier or more socially acceptable way,” explains James Bruce, ARM’s Director Mobile Solutions. “You don’t have to take your attention away from whatever you are doing by digging out your smart phone.”

Smart glasses are another way to display fitness and health data. Yet many wonder about the social acceptability of such wearables. “Google Glass may still seem a bit strange to the average consumer,” cautions Bruce. “However, I think there are great opportunities for glass type devices in the industrial market. For example, if you are a building repair person, then have information conveyed to you via glasses is a lot easier than trying to pull out a tablet that could easily be dropped – perhaps over the side of the building. So I think that wearable devices like Google Glass will first find application in industrial markets become moving to consumers.”

One often overlooked market for wearables is in the fashion and clothing industry. This may be due to a lack of understanding by technical experts of the fashion market, Soubra wryly observes. Still, the fashion market seems poised to benefit from developments in the fitness and health wearables. What other markets might be next? The “World of Wearable Technology Applications” from Beecham Research visually highlights the potential breadth of the wearable marketplace.

The first application space for today’s consumer wearable technology seems well grounded in the fitness and health markets. Future growth will come from evolving battery and sensor hub technologies as well as from niche and industrial applications. That’s why a new IDTechEx report states that the healthcare, medical, fitness and wellness sectors have the most potential with industrial, commercial and even fashion applications becoming appreciable as the market powers to over $70 billion in 2024.

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