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Rise of the wearables?

The tumbling cost of hardware development and manufacture is helping start-ups enter the wearable technology market in droves, and rapid growth is expected. But there are still other technological limitations for the wearables sector to overcome.

If one thing is clear from visiting the Wearable Technology 2015 conference in London, it’s that there’s a wearable or smart object for everything. The products on show ranged from smart watches and fitness trackers from well-established brands like Jawbone, Withings and Pebble, to smart jewellery, underwear and dumb-bells from new market entrants.

The global market for these gadgets is growing quickly. From a more-or-less standing start in 2012, roughly 30m units have now been shipped. Forecasters including CCS Insights and BI Intelligence predict that a further 100m devices will be shipped between now and 2018, mostly fuelled by sales of smart watches from the gorillas of the tech world – particularly Apple and Samsung. But there is plenty of space for disruptive start-ups to grab market share, and the barriers to entry are lower than ever.

Over the last decade if you were a start-up software company the cost of creating a proof of concept and getting those first early adopter customers was not high. Open Source software, cloud computing and digital software delivery all helped keep the costs down. It was not until recently that the same could be said for hardware start-ups, and getting first products into the market required substantial funding.

Now though the cost of producing prototypes has fallen dramatically. 3D printing and falling costs of key tools like laser cutters have helped this, and there are even networks like Fab Labs that provide access to community prototyping and design facilities. Crowd funding on websites like Kickstarter.com or Indiegogo.com allow companies to find early adopters, get feedback on products and finance production. The potential is for new wearables start-ups to design, prototype and produce their first product before they ever have to talk to investors, and this will help drive increasing numbers of new wearables start-ups.

At the moment the majority of activity in the wearable world is in the unregulated space, and claims on data privacy and accuracy have often not been rigorously challenged. As companies look to tackle the healthcare market these key aspects will need to stand up to independent scrutiny, and perhaps more importantly data privacy will be key to maintaining consumer trust.

On our smartphones we’ve become used to having everything in one place. The same device lets you chat with friends, play games, browse the internet and do your banking. As I look at the world of wearables today though, I often see that it’s a different bit of hardware for each feature. One wrist band will record how much sunlight you’ve been exposed to while another will exchange information automatically with a friend when you shake hands and yet another will monitor how you sleep. The key limit holding back all of the developers is battery power and duration. If you packed all the features you could dream up into one wrist band you’d need to be plugged into the mains all day.

The recent launch of the Apple Watch is a big step forward, but it is still limited in what it monitors and how dependent it is on an iPhone to do the heavy lifting. Ultimately until battery technology catches up with our ambitions we’re going to have to choose which features we value most and so which smart wristband, shirt or glasses we’ll wear today.