The wearables segment has gained maturity over the past few years. Equipped with a number of sensors, these devices have gone from counting steps and measuring irregular heartbeat to detecting sound pollution and stress levels. In the process, these wearables have advanced from being accessories in a user’s phone to becoming a device in their own right.

Besides smart watches and wristbands, ear-worn devices have become very popular and gained considerable market share. According to the International Data Corporation (IDC), the global wearables market witnessed around 72.6 million unit shipments in the first quarter of 2020, recording a 29.7 per cent year-on-year growth. This growth was driven by increased traction in the earwear category, which grew by 68.3 per cent, accounting for 54.9 per cent of the entire market.

Interestingly, wearables are finding use cases across several segments and are being adopted for varied purposes. In the healthcare industry, wearable manufacturers are catering to the need for accurate data collection to anticipate and prevent diseases. Medical wearables are moving away from clinical-grade wearables like Fitbit to outcome-based devices that combine artificial intelligence (AI) and big data. These wearables provide personalised diagnosis, treatment and remote patient monitoring in real time. For instance, a wearable from Omron Healthcare, HeartGuide, looks like a typical smart watch but measures blood pressure and collects physical activity data, which can be shared with physicians. In July 2020, researchers from Pennsylvania State University and Xiangtan University developed a wearable skin patch that can monitor health conditions from the sweat of the user. The device will be of interest to the healthcare industry, particularly athletics healthcare. Move ECG is yet another smart wearable product that takes the ECG test and detects atrial fibrillation and sends the data to the doctor. In June 2020, Samsung launched blood pressure tracking in the Galaxy Watch Active 2 through the health monitor app in South Korea.

With the increasing use of wearable devices, banks are also moving towards more wearable-led features for easier access to account information like balance, alerts and reward points. For instance, HSBC has partnered with Samsung to improve retail banking operations and customer experience under a pilot programme at its Manhattan branch. The bank uses Samsung S3 Gear to streamline communication, improve customer service and track real-time branch operations. Further, contactless payment platforms using smartphones, watches and other wearable devices are witnessing significant uptake for fast and easy transactions at point-of-sale terminals. To this end, in June 2020, a Greek start-up, Neos Beyond Payments, signed a cooperation agreement with Swedish technology firm Fidesmo to allow users to make payments using their bracelets, which are connected to their cards.

Through wearables, companies are also looking to revolutionise their training process. With the aim to improve site management and promote the well-being of the construction sector, in June 2020, the UK national framework organisation Pagabo partnered with a healthtech company Moodbeam to launch a wearable device called Moodbeam One. This device provides an insight into the mental health of workers as it enables them to anonymously give feedback about their mood. Furthermore, wearables are disrupting the textile world with intelligent clothing. For instance, Italy-based Neviano smart swimsuits include a waterproof UV sensor that communicates with the user’s smartphone to tell when UV levels are high. Further, Snapchat Spectacles 2.0 come with a built-in camera that allow users to take photos and videos directly from their glasses.

Uptake during Covid-19

In their efforts to contain the spread of Covid-19, governments around the world are rolling out wearables to assist in fighting the virus. In June 2020, Singapore started providing Bluetooth-enabled contact tracing devices as part of its measures to slow the spread of coronavirus. The wearable devices complement the island’s existing contact tracing app. Some countries have started making tracking wristbands or apps a mandatory element of their efforts to enforce quarantine orders.

In a separate development, researchers from Northwestern University in the US have come up with a stamp-sized device, comprising a suite of sensors that record body temperature and blood oxygen levels to catch early signs and symptoms of Covid-19, and help monitor patients as the illness progresses.

That said, according to the IDC, the spread of Covid-19 has adversely impacted the supply chain of wearables during the first quarter of 2020. With the pandemic, growth in the global wearables market is expected to slow down significantly in 2020, and grow at 9.4 per cent, according to the forecast, reaching 368.2 million shipments in 2020 in comparison to sales growth of 89 per cent in 2019.

Indian scenario

The Indian wearables market is largely dominated by health and fitness products. According to the IDC, the Indian wearables market recorded a year-on-year growth of 80.6 per cent with 4.2 million unit shipments in the first quarter of 2020. This growth can be attributed to strong demand for earwear devices, which grew by 289.2 per cent year on year, accounting for over 3 million unit shipments in January-March 2020. The home-grown audio company boAt Lifestyle led the earwear market with a 23.9 per cent share.

Meanwhile, the wristbands market witnessed a 28 per cent year-on-year decline in January-March 2020 as top brands faced challenges in procuring supplies during the quarter. Despite supply constraints, Xiaomi maintained its lead with a 41.9 per cent market share, although it witnessed an annual dip of 39.3 per cent. The watch segment observed a year-on-year growth of 43.3 per cent during the first quarter of 2020, wherein Huami’s Amazfit continued to maintain its lead with a 22.4 per cent share.

While the wearable segment witnessed a year-on-year growth, the Covid-19-led lockdown in late March 2020 and supply shortage from China dampened quarterly sales in India. According to the IDC report, the segment registered its first sequential decline in the first quarter of 2020, after growing for eight consecutively quarters, as shipments declined 17.9 per cent. The impact was largely seen on the wristband market, which saw a 33.5 per cent quarterly decline.

Challenges and the way forward

Wearables are changing the way consumers communicate, monitor and share information. However, there remain several challenges that are yet to be addressed. Wearable devices require effective power management as battery space is limited. There are device security vulnerabilities and data privacy issues that have been detected in leading fitness trackers and their accompanying applications. With several users and a number of medical practitioners choosing to rely on these devices, the lack of stringent regulation is disconcerting.

The challenges notwithstanding, wearable technology is increasingly gaining popularity. According to Statista estimates, in 2020, over 368.2 million wearable devices will be shipped globally. This is projected to reach more than 500 million by 2024. Most industries are innovating and developing new wearables. The internet of bodies, an extension of IoT, is also expected to enhance interconnectedness. Going forward, industry experts expect wearable technology to emerge as a platform on the device.

By Shikha Swaroop