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13 wearable tech trends to watch in 2016

The Apple Watch dominated the wearables conversation for much of 2015 and may continue to do so with the second-generation Watch expected in 2016. Fitbit will also likely continue to hold its own in the New Year. Beyond these two safe bets, the future of dedicated activity trackers, and health and fitness wearables, is unclear.

We asked a collection of analysts, wearable technology manufacturers and other experts in the field for their takes on what to expect in 2016 and came up with these 13 trends to watch during the coming year.

1) Popularity of wearables will continue to mount

In 2015, 39.5 million U.S. adults 18 and over used wearable devices, including smartwatches and fitness trackers — an increase of 57.7 percent over 2014, according to eMarketer. That growth will continue in 2016 and beyond, with 81.7 million adults using wearables by 2018, the research firm says.

2) Smartwatches won't kill off dedicated activity trackers

Many tech industry watchers expected the Apple Watch to "unwind the fitness band business, but that hasn't happened," according to a December article in The Wall Street Journal

Apple sold roughly 7.5 million Watches during the past two quarters, according to IDC (a CIO.com sister company). In the same period, Fitbit sold about 9.2 million fitness trackers, more than double the number of devices sold in same two quarters of 2014.

[Related: 9 ways corporate fitness and wellness programs will change in 2016]

"A lot of people think multi-function devices will clobber dedicated devices," says Ramon Llamas, an IDC research manager for wearables and mobile phones. "I don't see that happening in 2016 or even in the next few years. These are two product categories that can coexist." 

Consumers appreciate the relative affordability of activity trackers, which typically cost between $100 and $200, according to Llamas. Smartwatches, however, generally cost $300 or more, and most people don't feel the "value proposition is there yet," he says. "They ask, 'What can I do on a smartwatch that I can't do on my smartphone?'"

3) Fitbit will remain king of the activity trackers

Fitbit is and will continue to be the top activity tracker brand, according to The NPD Group's fall 2015 Consumers and Wearables Report. Fitbit ownership increased 13 percentage points from February to October 2015, the report says, "and it remains the only activity tracker brand that consumers request by name on a regular basis, rather than just by comparing features or style."

4) Competition will heat up for Fitbit

IDC estimates that 97 percent of China-based Xiaomi's activity tracker sales were made in the company's home country. Xiaomi's Mi Band, however, sells for about $15. That's far less than the least expensive Fitbit, the $60 Zip, and Xiaomi could become a real threat to Fitbit if it successfully expands beyond China.

Then there's Garmin, a company known mostly for its portable navigation devices and another potential Fitbit rival. Its "focus on citizen athletes with wearables for running, golf, swimming, hiking, and aquatics kept the company well entrenched," according to IDC. "With a deep and broad product portfolio and multiple price points, Garmin has been well-positioned to cover numerous market segments and address the rising fitness tracker category with its Vivo sub-brand of bands and watches."

Garmin is already a popular choice among athletes. In a November 2015 Piper Jaffray survey of 221 U.S. athletes, 91 percent said they wear a watch when running, and 70 percent of those people named Garmin as their brand of choice. Fitbit was the top pick among people who wore dedicated fitness bands, with 73 percent of the market, according to the survey.

5) Fitbit will add 'advanced sensors' to maintain a competitive edge

Fitbit CEO James Park recently revealed details on the company's future product line, in an interview with Time.

"We're definitely going to be releasing devices with advanced sensors that help people track not only more accurate metrics on what we're doing today, but additional metrics as well," Park said. "I can't talk specifically, but things people are going to be interested in in the future are blood pressure, or stress, or more stats about their athletic performance. Those are all things that we're working on and we'll continue to release over time."

Fitbit also "plans to strike partnerships with fashion brands as it has done with Tory Burch in the past," Park told Time. Third-party developers could also integrate their software into more advanced Fitbit devices in the future. "We're going to allow third parties in some ways to tap into the power of having an always-on device on someone's wrist," Park said.

A Fitbit representative says the company is "looking at all of the critical imperatives for health and wellness, such as activity level, sleep, nutrition — and the connection to chronic diseases (diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and more) that impact the global population to see how we can further help people."

6) Wearable apps will become more sophisticated — and expensive 

Apps from the companies that make activity trackers, as well as compatible third-party software that works with the devices, will become more advanced, and they'll integrate diet and different fitness categories, according to Weston Henderek, director of connected intelligence at The NPD Group. "Apps will take advantage of the sensors in activity trackers and give people a cloud-based repository of their info, along with more recommendations for how to improve their health."

However, with mounting pressure to keep activity-tracker prices competitive in 2016, it will be harder for the manufacturers to make profits, according to Henderek. One way to offset shrinking profit margins will be to charge monthly subscription fees for premium services and data, he says. Some companies already do. Fitbit's Premium Membership, for example, costs $50 a year, and gives subscribers personalized 12-week fitness plans and more detailed sleep reports, among other features.

7) Hackers will target wearables

As wearable devices become more popular, hackers will target the devices more often, according to Bruce Snell, cybersecurity and privacy director of Intel Security Group. Wearables typically collect a lot of simple data and feed it to mobile applications for processing, he says. Most of the devices use Bluetooth LE technology, "which has suffered a number of well-documented security flaws and likely will produce more with each new version. Poorly written wearable code will create a back door into your smartphone."

Snell predicts some leading wearable devices will be compromised during the next 12 to 18 months "in a way that will provide valuable data for 'spear-phishing' attacks." Using GPS data collected from a running app tied to a fitness tracker, for example, a spear-phisher could "craft an email that you would be more likely to open. If you stop by a coffee shop after your run, using the GPS data an attacker could write an email saying, 'I think you dropped this at the coffee shop this morning,' and include a link to an infected image file." 

Nearly three-quarters of IT professional respondents believe the risk of hackers targeting organizations via IoT devices, such as activity trackers, is medium or high, according to ISACA's IT Risk/Reward Barometer study. In particular, IoT devices are convenient targets for fraudsters who want to use ransomware, according to Christos Dimitriadis, international president of ISACA and group director of information security at Intralot.

In 2016, enterprises "will need to set network policies that can manage access levels for these devices," says Kurt Roemer, chief security strategist at Citrix. "Employees will be wearing multiple devices to gather more data and improve accuracy for things like health tracking — and all will need to be managed accordingly. For industries like healthcare where the devices are constantly uploading and sending data, it will be critical that this information is encrypted and has multi-factor authentication protocols to avoid any funny business from patients or hackers."

8) Athletes will embrace 'smart clothing' 

Fitness wearables will generate more than $10 billion in revenue by 2020, up for $3.3 billion in 2015, according to Juniper Research. The "tripling effect will be largely driven by the sales of wrist-based trackers, while hundreds of thousands of connected garments used by professional sports teams showcase wearable technology's most advanced capabilities," the research firm said in a statement. 

"Already used in training to monitor performance, smart clothing will also become an important part of watching sports in the future, with leagues like the NFL partnering with Microsoft and Zebra Technologies to produce live visualizations of data and new ways for fans to understand each game," according to Juniper.

While the value of smart clothing for average consumers is not yet apparent, it's a trend that could have staying power, according to NPD Group's Henderek. "In professional sports, the ability to track the amount of effort athletes are putting in could help coaches redistribute workloads and help avoid injuries," he explains. "There's a real need for that data."

Some well-known brands already offer "smart clothing" for consumers. Ralph Lauren's PoloTech shirt ($300), for example, measures heart rate data, breathing depth, balance and other biometrics, and streams the information from a "Bluetooth-enabled black box" to an iPhone or Apple Watch app, according to the company.

9) A focus on sleep in 2016 

Most of today's high-end activity trackers monitor sleep in some fashion, often automatically. However, the data the devices gather and feed back to their accompanying apps or websites is fairly basic, and it mostly tells only much time users slept, how often they were awake, and the levels of deep sleep versus light rest.

As wearable devices gain more sensors and processing power, they'll start to provide more detailed information on sleep patterns, according to Henderek. Metrics on REM sleep coupled with heart rate date during sleep will help connect the dots for users so they can see patterns over time, he says.

A wider variety of technology designed to not only track sleep but also improve it will hit the market. The "first-of-its-kind" Nuyu Sleep System ($500), for instance, adjusts the user's body temperature and warms him up as he goes to bed to help relax, then cools him off to increase the quality of sleep, according to the company.

10) Niche wearables will become commonplace

More wearable devices with sensors designed for specific purposes will be released in 2016. One such device, the Neatamo June bracelet ($129) for women, which measures sun exposure and offers advice on sunscreen application to prevent UV damage via a mobile app, is already available. "This is truly a device that could lower melanoma incidences globally," says Roozbeh Jafari, an IEEE Member and associate professor at Texas A&M University. "Plus, it looks fashionable, which is half the battle to market."

11) Activity trackers will remind more people to stand up

If an Apple Watch owner sits down for 50 minutes straight while wearing the device, the Watch vibrates to remind them to stand up and move around. (The stand reminders can be deactivated or silenced.) Some dedicated activity trackers already have similar features, including Garmin's vivosmart HR ($150), and more of 2016's wearable tech and activity trackers will feature stand reminders as well, Henderek says.

12) Traditional watch makers will add 'smart' elements

In 2015, a new category of watch known as "connected timepieces," began to proliferate. These gadgets are traditional watches with some technology added, such as the ability to receive notifications from a smartphone and track steps. Current examples include the Timex Metropolitan+ ($125 and up) and Guess Connect (about $400). In 2016, additional watch makers will release hybrid devices, according to Henderek.

13) Future wearables will be less … wearable

It may take more than the duration of 2016, but eventually wearable technologies will give way to implanted tech, according Liz Dickinson, CEO of wearable maker Mio Global. Today's wearables "are a transitional technology, with the ultimate end-goal being complete integration and implantation with and in the human body," she says. "In the future, we'll become ever more connected, and our environment will adjust to our physiological, emotional and physical needs automatically through a new type of system that's embedded in our bodies."

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