Wearable technology in healthcare: What are the leading tech themes driving change?

29 October 2019 (Last Updated July 22nd, 2020 17:45)

In 2018, the wearable tech market was worth approximately $23bn and is likely to grow to $54bn by 2023, witnessing a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 19%, according to GlobalData forecasts.

Wearable technology in healthcare: What are the leading tech themes driving change?

In 2018, the wearable tech market was worth approximately $23bn and is likely to grow to $54bn by 2023, witnessing a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 19%, according to GlobalData forecasts.

Wearables have been adopted in a wide range of fields; however, they have their greatest potential in healthcare to address spiralling healthcare costs, aging populations, and the burden of chronic disease.

Below are some of the key technology themes impacting the global wearable tech in healthcare industry as identified by GlobalData.

Smartwatch is king

Smartwatches in 2018 accounted for nearly 60% of the overall wearables market, according to GlobalData figures, mostly attributed to the remarkable performance of Apple Watches, Xiaomi-backed Huami’s Amazfit, and Fitbit Versa. Samsung gained substantial traction in the market with its Galaxy Watch series, while Withings released its analogue-style series of smartwatches.

The growing inclination of consumers to access smartphone-like features from a watch remains the primary growth driver. Supplementing this factor, technological improvements such as seamless body integration, health and fitness information accessibility, and modular aesthetics are key growth stimulants for smartwatches’ adoption.

With improving adoption rate in the mature markets, GlobalData estimates over 10% of the adult population in the US will adopt smartwatches in 2019. Competition in the segment is vastly increasing.

Traditional players Apple, FitBit, Garmin, and Polar all have products categorised as smartwatches; however, few have entered the health space, limited to Apple’s Apple Watch. Moving away from purely fitness tracking, the segment is witnessing a significant surge in disease-specific functionality smartwatches, such as the medical-grade Embrace2 smartwatch by Empatica enabling continuous monitoring of sweat levels detecting the onset of epileptic seizures with an accuracy of 98%, according to its validation studies.

Custom silicon drives smartwatches

While it is known that the smartphone component ecosystem played a critical role in getting the first wearables to market, the next wave of innovation is being driven by purpose-built silicon. Not only is Apple building unique processors and sensors into the Apple Watch, but the company is also using its own chips for implementation of Bluetooth in AirPod wireless headphones. Samsung is using its own Exnyos SoC for the Galaxy Watch, and Huawei has two custom chips in the Watch GT.

Vendors that cannot compete with Apple directly for smartwatch processors are turning to Qualcomm. Unfortunately, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Wear 2100 is old and underpowered, and the 3100 is just catching up to the market. Qualcomm’s Wear 2500 serves as a platform designed specifically for kids’ watches.

Fitness trackers are losing out to smartwatches

In Q4 2018, Fitbit derived 79% of its revenue from sales of smartwatches, while its fitness trackers segment contributed nominally. For the full year, 44% of Fitbit’s revenue came from smartwatches, up from 8% in 2017, which clearly demonstrates the negative impact of Fitbit’s legacy products and replacement of the same with low-margin smartwatches. Similarly, Garmin reported that the 25% growth in its outdoor segment during Q4 2018 was possible “with significant contributions from adventure watches.”

The shrinking popularity of fitness trackers in matured markets can be attributed to the rapid replication of their unique selling propositions (USPs) in smartwatches. Overshadowing of fitness trackers’ USPs such as step counts, calorie burns, sleeping pattern, distance walked/run etc., smartwatches now offer improved stats—for example ECG, non-invasive glucose monitoring, and fall detection—and social connectivity. These health-orientated applications allow more functionality specific to the consumer.

Smart glasses are pacing up commercially

Eyewear is getting smarter, all thanks to augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). Despite the initial failure of Google Glass in commercial markets, it has maintained its position in healthcare and is a common feature in many teaching hospitals as a surgical training and assistance tool.

Continuous investment from tech giants to develop and utilise AR and VR beyond the known areas of application, coupled with surging demand from enterprises, is propelling the growth of smart glasses. From first-person imaging to enhanced turn-wise directions, facial recognition, and healthsensing, AR is driving the penetration of smart glasses into multiple areas of the internet-connected society.

Microsoft, Google, Lenovo, and Vuzix are leading in the AR smart glasses market, which is increasingly being challenged by new entrants such as Epson, Magic Leap, and Medical Realities. The recent entry of Facebook, Huawei, and Apple into the AR smart glasses arena serves as an additional boost to the emerging wearables segment.

Hearables are getting smarter

Ear-worn devices are one of the first wearable technologies developed to enhance hearing. The dramatic surge in interest for combining hearing aids with entertainment attributes resulted in the inception of smart ear-wear, or “hearables,” over the past three to four years.

While the market remains in the early adoption phase, hearables offer infinite possibilities in the areas of healthcare and fitness. From heart rate measurements to sleep monitoring, steps and calories tracking, and brain waves analysis, hearables perform a variety of functions. The integration of Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Google Assistant, and IBM’s Watson is making hearables smarter.

Virtual assistants support the user as a “wise friend” by reading messages and weather updates, suggesting best sleep positions or cardio moves, translating a foreign language in realtime, and communicating with other smart devices, among others—all through voice control.

Voice plays a crucial role in defining the relationship between the wearer and the device. Tech firms such as Apple, Google, and Samsung, among others, are harnessing the appeal and utility factors of these sensor-laden devices to the end consumers, with several other firms already entering with biometric sensors such as Jabra, LifeBeam, and Vinci.

Smart clothing to gain popularity

According to a survey by the World Economic Forum (WEF), 92.1% of corporate leaders believe that 10% of people will wear internet-connected garments by 2025. The market for smart clothing is in the initial experimental stages with few products, including NadiX yoga leggings, Sensoria socks, Ambiotex smart shirts, and Supa Bras, available commercially.

The slow yet growing popularity of these products reflects a nascent demand for fitness-focused, sensor embedded, and internet-connected clothing from the mass market. In addition to sports and fitness, smart clothes are also being demanded in the healthcare and defence sectors, where continuous monitoring of body activities is of utmost importance.

Start-ups are the key driving forces for the smart clothing segment, mostly attributed to their “Build-Your-Own-Device” approaches. Swayed by the response being generated by the start-up firms, tech leaders, especially Google and Samsung, are racing to establish their dominance of the emerging market.

Skin patches

As digital capabilities have improved, these formerly simple devices have evolved to facilitate more complex functions while being thin and flexible from being manufactured using nanomaterials, flexible electronic technologies, and sensors. Consequently, the definition of “skin adhesive patches” is broadening to include smart technologies allowing connectivity with IoT devices.

GlobalData expects that miniaturisation and lowered costs of development will create a surge for wearable sensors in healthcare, causing considerable market growth. Currently, leaders in the space include small companies like iRhythm, based in San Francisco, which has launched its Zio single-use patch to monitor heart rhythms for up to 14 days remotely.

This is an edited extract from the Wearable Technology in Healthcare – Thematic Research report produced by GlobalData Thematic Research.

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