Finally: A sensible report on the future of wearable technology

By James Robinson , written on June 9, 2014

From The News Desk

At last, a report on wearable technology that doesn’t throw out some exorbitant but vaguely calculated projection of how much the market will be worth in five years as proof of how excited we should be.

The Future of Biosensing Wearables report out today from Rock Health – a San Francisco-based fund working with digital health technologies – forgoes such carry-on, and is maybe the first of its type to address the growing consumer suspicion alongside the new market possibilities.

Rock Health spent 15 months looking at the sector which, as it points out, will be worth anywhere between five and fifty billion dollars by 2018, going by any of the nine major pieces of research conducted recently

Despite the big talk, the activity tracker market is the only wearables space to have any penetration of note, with a still measly one to two percent market share. Fitbit, Jawbone and Nike's bands account for 97 percent of sales, and 80 percent of people stop using an activity tracker after six months, according to Rock Health's estimates.

We've a long way to go until the promised land. Nike fired its Fuelband team. Nobody likes smart watches. The form that wearable technology will take in our future is up for debate. It used to be considered as a post-mobile replacement. Now who knows? Somebody needs to make a product people want to buy before any more bold proclamations are set down.

That said, according to Rock Health’s report, there is a confluence of underlying factors that will carry the space along and help it find its footing. Investment in sensors and smart devices exploded from $49 million in 2011 to $282 million in 2013. Supporting this increase in investment is an upsurge in technology: increased smartphone penetration, drastic decreases in the per unit price of accelerometers since 2008, cloud computing, wireless charging, and Bluetooth capabilities. A lot of what is happening now wouldn't have been possible even three years ago.

The handbrake to it all is that the market is deeply segregated, split across activity trackers, smart watches, clothes, patches, and ingestibles, promising to do everything from monitor heart rate and sleep to posture and muscle activity.  New products face a balancing act as they try to add specific, real utility while still having broad market appeal, juggling dueling trade offs between functionality, reliability, and convenience.

Rock Health’s full report can be read here. If a smart, granular, hype-free take on the current state and direction of wearable tech sounds like your thing, it is more than worth a read.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]