The incredible rise of the wearable

Heart rate monitor on smart watch
Health and fitness tracking features have consistently ranked as the most important reasons why people choose to buy smartwatches, and are some of the most used features on these devices.(AndreyPopov/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

From a sweat sensor that detects gout to a device that tracks what you eat, soon there’s going to be a wearable technology for tracking and measuring almost anything you can think of.

And that means a surge in sales of wearable devices over the next few years, with some 303 million devices expected to ship in 2024, almost double the market size today, according to CCS Insight (see chart below.) This week the research and advisory firm released its latest forecast for wearables, which includes both smartwatches and fitness trackers. (Despite some smartwatches replicating the features of a smartphone, wearables and smartphones remain two distinct categories.)

“Despite global headwinds across the tech market, wearables have managed to sustain strong interest from customers, especially among first-time buyers,” said Leo Gebbie, Senior Analyst, Wearables and XR, CCS Insight. “We believe that during the pandemic people have become more focused than ever on tracking their well-being, leading many to consider buying a smartwatch or a fitness tracker. Our research has shown that health- and fitness-tracking capabilities on wearables are extremely popular with customers."

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Shipments of wearable devices Chart CCS Insights

Gebbie noted that features like heart rate monitoring are now standard across all wrist-worn devices, and that more advanced features, such as electrocardiogram (ECG) measurements, are rolling down the price curve. FierceElectronics reported recently on a new, cuffless blood pressure sensor under development by the startup Blumio. Designed to be integrated into a wearable device, the sensor stands to revolutionize the diagnosis and treatment for hypertension.

“We’ve witnessed something of an arms race as major companies aim to outstrip one another in their offerings around health and wellbeing, in terms of the sensors on their wearables, which track metrics such as heart rate, blood oxygen levels, respiratory rates and more,” said Gebbie. “And the insight they give customers into their personal data. In our own research, health and fitness tracking features have consistently ranked as the most important reason why people choose to buy smartwatches, and are some of the most used features on those devices. For that reason, we're expecting to see this trend continue in the future."

While the lines between everyday wearable devices and advanced healthcare-specific devices may seem to be increasingly blurred, Gebbie noted that devices in the consumer market should not be considered fit for true medical purposes. They can provide a good overview of your health, but users should not rely on them for any sort of true diagnoses. 

Another key trend is connected wearables, such as smartwatches which can connect to a cellular network without the need for a smartphone. Gebbie noted that the goal of emerging devices aimed at kids and senior users is to keep people connected to their loved ones, providing a way for someone to monitor a family member's wellbeing and location, and to easily get in touch if needed. 

Data is another area where companies are upping their game. According to Gebbie, many platforms now offer aggregated measures of wellbeing based on the feedback from multiple sensors. One recent example he pointed to is Fitbit's stress score, which is based on a new sensor to measure electrodermal activity (as measured by electrical pulses in sweat), along with existing metrics like heart rate and time spent exercising recently. 

The list of new and innovative wearables goes on and on, including necklaces that can monitor air pollution and sleeping masks that promise to provide a more restful night and multi-task as a kind of alarm clock to wake you up in the morning. But while they are inventive and novel, Gebbie noted that few of them have scaled to a mass market level. “These products are niche, compared to smartwatches and fitness trackers.”

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Editor’s Note: Catherine Liao, co-founder of Blumio will be talking about her startup’s journey and developers of wearable technologies will be speaking on a panel, “Innovations in Wearables and Personal Medical Devices,” during MedTech Innovation Week a digital event series taking place October 19-22, 2021. For more information and to register for your free pass click here.

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