Wearable gadgets hit the consumer market with a bang in in 1979, when the first Sony Walkman was introduced. The portable cassette player revolutionized the way people listened to music, and cost US$150. On the business and communication side, another seminal technology emerged at the turn of the 21st century: Nokia’s bluetooth headsets.
Notable wearables today include Fitbit wristbands, the Apple watch, Google Glass, and Playstation VR — all of which have gained great market shares. As the data-collecting portal to the IoT, wearables hold many future possibilities. Big tech, university spinoffs, and startups continue to compete for market shares in a rapidly growing industry. There is a 4×4 matrix for wearable applications: gadgets can be worn on the head, wrist, body, or stand alone; and be applied to fitness, healthcare, gaming & entertainment, or multi-functional uses.
Fitness Wristbands Price War
Fitness wristbands are currently the most popular product. In a 2014 US survey, 42% responded favourably to wearing gadgets on the wrist, compared to only 18% for eyeglasses. According to IDC statistics, Fitbit and Xiaomi shipped 8.5 million wristbands globally in the first quarter of 2016, far ahead of other players such as Jawbone and Suunto. However, with a price battle raging between Fitbit and Xiaomi, and the price of individual units tumbling to as low as US$14.99, the profitability of wristband markets remains dubious.
It was partly due to thinning profits that microprocessor giant Intel shelved plans for wearable devices such as fitness trackers and smart watches. Being an upstream processor provider, Intel holds a competitive advantage. However, in the face of chaotic price wars and market uncertainty in various sectors, Intel abandoned its Arduino 101 maker board and Curie module this July, avoiding a battle with ARM and Qualcomm.
One limit for fitness wearables is the lack of product differentiation. Most products have the same functions: checking body temperature, workout time, travel distance, heart rate speed, and sending alerts. Where to go from there?
Uncertainty in VR/ AR Market
The problems in the VR/AR market are different. Google Glass has faced criticism regarding battery life, ditziness, and user interface. Early users who payed $1,500 in 2013 gave mixed feedback. According to digital eyeglasses pioneer Dr. Steve Mann, the design of most glasses now on the market got his original concept wrong, as they “put the camera on the side, inside of having it directly in front of the eye, replacing the human eye as a processor.”
To this end, VisionerTech, a spinoff from University of Toronto’s Humanistic Intelligence Lab located in China’s hardware capital Shenzhen, is remodelling the framework. VisionerTech describes their product as “Mediated Reality” (MR), reflecting a concept earlier proposed by Mann. It uses a binocular camera instead of the human eye to obtain real information, distinguishing it from other commercially available AR headsets. VisionerTech sells its VMG-PROV for US$1215, which is on the market’s pricier side.
As Arkin Ai, the company’s CTO tells us, “We do hardware assembly and software in-house because there are no available packages for us on the market.” Taking advantage of its Shenzhen location, the company can obtain sensors, screens, processors, batteries, and FPGA circuits locally at a lower price, and also has the vast Chinese consumer market at hand.
The future of AR/VR headsets is promising. Although there is still no single product good enough to define the market, players such as Oculus Rift, HTC Live, HoloLens, PlayStation VR, Magical Leap and Lumis Optical are strong leaders in this exciting field.
Future of Wearables
Great ideas don’t always translate into successful products. When Claude Shannon and Ed Thorp created the first portable roulette predicting machine in 1961, there were infinite possibilities. When we plant these ideas in the consumer market of 2017, some will flourish while others wither.
While consumers are always eager to try new things, the current crop of wearables’ novelty phase will not last long if mass market adoption does not follow.
Journalist: Meghan Han | Editor: Michael Sarazen
This article is the 3rd in a series on Humanistic Intelligence, read full coverage here: A Brief Introduction to Humanistic Intelligence: The Symbiotic Future of Machine and Human; 1960s-2010s: Humanistic Intelligence and History of Wearable Computing