From your wrist to your ear, there's a burgeoning market for wearable tech.
Smartwatches such as the market-leading Apple Watch and rivals from Huawei, Samsung and Xiaomi are the mainstay of the wearables market, according to research group IDC, but growth in health trackers and wireless earbuds is also strong.
Around 172 million wearable devices shipped globally in 2018. Apple, which released the Apple Watch Series 4 ($699) here in September, was the market leader accounting for over a quarter of devices shipped. Its smartwatches and Airpod wireless Bluetooth earbuds racked up 46.2 million unit sales in 2018.
By the end of last year, wrist bands such as the Fitbit Versa and Charge 3 health trackers, accounted for 30 per cent of the wearables market, with the ear-worn device segment claiming 22 per cent.
While the Apple Watch is well-established in the New Zealand market, second-ranked global player Xiaomi is less familiar to Kiwis. The Chinese electronics maker last year opened a retail store at the Sylvia Park shopping centre in Auckland’s Mt. Wellington, where it sells entry-level health trackers and smartwatches such as the Mi Band 3 ($59) and the Mi Amazfit Bip ($129), which are compatible with Android and Apple smartphones.
The Mi Band 3 alone accounted for 30 per cent of global wristband devices shipped in the final quarter of 2018, according to IDC, most of them selling in Xiaomi’s home market of China. Fitbit, on the other hand, is finally coming out of a sales slump that saw shipments of its devices drop 10 per cent last year.
"Apple accounted for nearly half the market and followed by a long list of companies that posted double- and triple-digit growth,” says IDC’s research director for wearables, Ramon T. Llamas.
“What resulted from this was a growing list of devices available at multiple price-points to meet the needs of a diverse market."
The rise of in-ear tech
Wireless earbuds, which let you listen to music or phone calls via a Bluetooth connection to your smartphone, have been around for years. But IDC has added to its wearable tech category headphones capable of enabling smart assistants at the touch of a button or through ‘hot-word’ detection.
Those include the Airpods, which can connect to the Siri digital assistant when the user double taps on one of the earbuds. Samsung released its own Galaxy Bud wireless earbuds last month with the launch of its Galaxy S10 line-up of smartphones. Those earbuds connect to Samsung’s own digital assistant Bixby.
Google has also entered the in-ear wearables market with the Pixel Buds, though the earbuds, which allow you to talk to the Google Assistant and even translate between languages on the fly, have been poorly received and aren’t on sale in New Zealand.
The next step for in-ear wearables however, is to add health tracking features that let you monitor your vital signs, just as a wristband fitness tracker can. In fact, scientists suggest in-ear monitoring of blood pressure and heart rate is likely to be more accurate than doing so on the wrist.
“If you’re going to choose a place on the body to measure physical signals…two places are far and away the best: the ear and the rear,” says health tracking expert Steven LeBoeuf.
The ear offers a more reliable location for gathering biometric data than the wrist and with blood flowing to different parts of the ear at different rates, other useful readings can be taken. An earbud is also less prone to movement than a wristband.
With millions of people wearing earbuds for communication and entertainment each day, the logical next step is to include in-ear health trackers.
In December, Apple was awarded a patent for an earbud design that incorporates a biometric sensor that the patent notes could be “configured to be pressed up against a portion of the tragus”, part of the external ear which could be used to measure heart rate and body temperature. Who knows if biometrics will make it into the next update of Apple’s hugely successful Airpods, but it is clear that biometrics are soon to come to the ear for mass market wearables.
Weird and wacky wearables
At the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last week, the focus was very much on smartphones and 5G wireless networks, but a new wave of wearable devices and prototypes were also on the show floor.
Drawing inspiration from the foldable screen movement transforming smartphones, the Nubia Alpha concept smartwatch features a long, flexible OLED (organic light emitting diode) screen built into a wristband. That allows it to display a lot of information on the wrist and the Alpha is designed to be a stand-alone device, with its own mobile phone chip.
That means you don’t have to pair it with a phone to make calls and access the internet. It will allow voice and video calls as well as text messages and web surfing. Slightly chunky perhaps, but one of the first devices to showcase what is possible with a screen that flexes on your wrist. Nubia, the Chinese smartphone maker behind the Alpha hasn’t yet announced whether it will go into commercial production.
Many smartwatches and fitness trackers measure heart rate, blood pressure and sleeping patterns. The Apple Watch Series 4 even allows the user to touch the watch’s digital crown to record their heartbeat and rhythm in an app, a feature expected to come to New Zealand users this year once it gains regulatory approval.
But health-conscious wearables owners want more in the way of heart health monitoring. Meet the BioBeat watch, which gets a lot more technical with what it claims are medical-grade tracking of vital signs. From blood saturation to stroke volume, arterial pressure to the rate at which you sweat, the BioBeat covers all the bases for those who need to closely monitor their cardiovascular health.
It also functions as a reasonable smartwatch, though the many health-related tracking features are still awaiting regulatory approval in the US, which will pave the way for the watch’s global release.
Microsoft’s augmented reality headset gets a redesign, new interactive capabilities and a price reduction. But none of those will make it a device you are going to pick up any time soon to add a new element to your web surfing or video gaming.
Microsoft is targeting industry with the HoloLens, partnering with software makers to develop useful apps across industrial design, construction, collaborative working and medicine. The new headset is a lot more comfortable than its predecessor and the field of view has widened slightly to make it easier to see the virtual icons and objects painted over the real world you see through the headset lenses. It is a great concept that is inching towards perfection. But at US$3,500 per headset, it is still very much for specialist applications.
What’s on the market now – three hot wearables
Apple’s wireless earbuds are the obvious choice for iPhone users who want to free themselves from earphone cords. But they operate on the common Bluetooth standard so also pair quite nicely with Android smartphones. The design is so Apple – i.e. so good. The earbuds are lightweight, easy to pair and maintain a reliable connection allowing up to five hours of listening time. The accompanying case also lets you charge the Airpods and retains a charge giving you up to 24 hours of battery charging time. They also pair with the Apple Watch, iPad or Mac and a double tap on one of the Airpods will let you talk to Siri without needing to talk directly into your iPhone. $269
Fitbit Charge 3
One of the best-selling fitness trackers on the market, ideal for fitness fanatics as well as commuters, with its waterproof, sports strap and sturdy design. It covers the main health tracking bases, boasts multi-day battery life and handles basic alerts and messaging functionality when paired with your smartphone. $269
As a parent you may not want to unleash the kids with a smartphone yet, but are keen for them to enjoy all the benefits being of being connected on the go. The SpaceTalk smartwatch offered by Spark, offers calling and messaging on the wrist, without need to pair with a phone. There’s a GPS chip in it so that parents can monitor the location of the wearer in an app on their own smartphone. An SOS button allows the child to quickly call for help and there are health tracking features to keep tabs on the kid’s fitness activity. Everything is managed and recorded in the accompanying All My Tribe app. $399 plus $7.99 Pay Monthly data and calling plan and $6.99 per month for the All My Tribe app.