Getting in a sweat over wearables

Yang Yong, Huawei's VP of product management for mobile broadband and home product line, this week gave a hint of some of the daily challenges that confront manufacturers of smart wearable devices.

For example, aspects such as how much a wearable device will make you sweat have to be considered. These are, after all, devices or gadgets that could potentially be worn close to the skin for up to 24 hours a day. Comfort is now a big part of the equation.

There are several categories of wearables, ranging from wrist-based devices such as smart watches and fitness bands, through to smart fabrics and clothing. However, industry experts appear to be reaching consensus that there will be two over-arching categories for wearables in future: that they are fashionable, or that they are invisible.

Indeed, manufacturers are increasingly moving away from the hideous watches and fitness bands that emerged in the early days of wearables. Apple focused heavily on luxury product design and consumer appeal when it launched its Watch, and Huawei is employing fashion designers at its innovation centre in Paris.

Wrist-based wearables are also now expected to have a big future, after some initial scepticism. Christian Stammel, CEO of Germany-based Wearables Technologies, said smartphone users look at their devices up to 150 times a day, for example. "It is much easier to look at your wrist," he said.

Stammel also defined wearables as "every kind of sensor" worn on your body, and said they formed a subset of the "Internet of Things". More accurately, perhaps, wearables are also now described as the "Internet of You", with your smart watch, fitness band, music player and medical patch all controlled from your smartphone.

Indeed, Gartner research director Annette Zimmermann said the prediction is that the smartphone will remain the controlling device for at least the next five years, with wearables largely sold as complementary devices. That could change as battery technology evolves, but for now mobile connectivity is regarded as a complication too far.

Yet while there is growing clarity over how wearables will evolve in future, there is still considerable disparity in market forecasts, indicating that different companies are still adopting different approaches to how these devices are categorised.

For example, Gartner predicts that the global wearables market will reach around 220 million units in 2015, rising to 515 million by 2020. That contrasts significantly from IDC's latest forecasts of 72.1 million shipments in 2015 and 155.7 million in 2019.

Zimmermann noted that the Gartner figures include Bluetooth headsets, "which is a big chunk," as well as smart watches, sports watches, wristband, other fitness trackers, smart garments, head mounted displays and wearable cameras, and chest straps for running.

IDC lists four categories: wrist wear; eyewear; modular; and clothing, and said it does not include Bluetooth headsets in its numbers, for example.

Analyst companies will also, of course, have different expectations about the future. However, in order to better understand how this market is evolving, it would certainly help to have greater consensus on what the "wearables" category should include.--Anne