Wearable Computing: a booming market…with an uncertain future

By April 26, 2013
man wearing a futuristic looking pair or glasses

Google Glass, iWatch, intelligent clothes... The wearable device market is definitely growing. But how fast is still unsure.

The ‘Wearable Computing’ market is booming. An increasing number of analysts see a rosy future for the sector and are predicting the development of a multitude of gadgets. Among them we’ll see smart bracelets, sensors that clip on to your clothing, smart watches, eyewear – such as special contact lenses and Google Glass, the ‘wearable computer’ with a head-mounted display – ‘connected’ clothing and adhesive devices. All this new equipment could profoundly change the way we interact with our mobile phones and tablets, and – a report by New York-based Business Insider research service BI Intelligence suggests in its comments on the future of this market – might even replace them. However, predicts the report, the first stage will be coupling the gadgets to our smartphones via apps or wireless links such as Bluetooth. The devices not only provide complementary functionality, they also offer new applications, practices and measurements. This is still a very young market and it looks set for major expansion. However, analysts are still divided on precisely where the growth will come from and how sustainable it will be.

Studies disagree

First and foremost opinion is divided on the speed of growth of the market, which is still fairly diverse. While it’s certainly true that it’s booming just now, it’s not yet a stable market, and its long term attraction is still in doubt. Studies published only a couple of months apart give varying projections. Last September, IMS Research, a Wellingborough, UK-based market research consultancy to the global electronics industry, predicted that the wearable computing market would grow from sales of 14 million devices in 2011 to 171 million in 2016. In the meantime, announcements from giants such as Apple – which, market rumor has it – is developing an iWatch, and Samsung, which has announced that it will soon be launching a smart bracelet, could alter current market research firm forecasts. For example, the latest estimates from ABI Research in New York put annual sales at 485 million by 2018. This estimate looks on the high side to BI Intelligence, which sees growth in the market for eyewear such as Google Glass and smart watches as still too unpredictable to call. The BI Intelligence outlook sits between those of IMS Research and ABI Research, forecasting the number of units sold in 2014 at 100 million, rising to 300 million in five years’ time.

Different devices, different uses

Adoption of the various types of wearable computing depends very much on the actual gadget and there are already barriers to further adoption in some areas. Among these are style and design – major factors when it comes to smartwatch-type devices, which are worn either as a fashion accessory or as a piece of jewelry. Then there’s the question of battery life and recharging capabilities. If you take a bracelet which is intended to monitor the user’s activity on a permanent basis, day and night, taking it off to recharge it in the same way as you would a smartphone will tend to distort the data results. Nevertheless, these bracelets currently dominate the market. Using them to measure physical activity – plus their extended medical monitoring capabilities – seems to appeal strongly to consumers. Two other devices have also aroused consumer interest: watches, such as Pebble Technology’s connected multi-tasking Pebble Watch; and eyewear, as evidenced by the excitement surrounding the forthcoming launch of Google Glass.

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