Recently I came across a bit of tech news that was equally intriguing and baffling.
Rapper and songwriter will.i.am, founder of the Black Eyed Peas, partnered with Honeywell to develop a “smart” mask. The product, called Xupermask, is a face mask that serves more functions than preventing the spread of disease. In addition to being equipped with three dual-speed fans and a Honeywell HEPA filtration system, the Xupermask also boasts noise-canceling headphones, LED lights to boost the wearer’s visibility at night, and Bluetooth capability to allow the wearer to take calls.
It definitely made me raise an eyebrow, but it got me thinking about the wearables market and its potential for improving our daily lives – from the use cases we are already familiar with, like smartwatches and fitness trackers, to the outlandish, like a face mask that allows you to take calls.
Researchers saw an uptick in the sale of wearables in the past year and are predicting growth in the near future.
Some 527 million wearables were sold globally in 2020, according to the latest research from Strategy Analytics. This is a record high for the segment, representing a 37 percent year-on-year increase from 384 million in 2019.
Earwear, particularly wireless earbuds, experienced a surge, increasing 61 percent to 327 million units, while wristwear was up 11 percent to 188 million units.
In addition, the category that comprises fitness bands, smart jewelry, apparel and glasses, and VR devices, was up 4 percent to 12 million units.
Meanwhile, a January forecast from Gartner, a research and advisory company, predicts that spending on wearables will total $81.5 billion in 2021, representing an 18.1 increase year-on-year from $69 billion spent on wearables in 2020, with the figure expected to increase even further to $94 billion in 2022.
Why the sudden interest?
Experts point out that during the pandemic, exercise moved from the gym to the outdoors and the home – boosting the appeal of fitness trackers and smartwatches with fitness tracking capabilities. People began counting steps and distance instead of counting reps or relying on gym equipment to keep track.
Additionally, due to personal budget restrictions, people could be opting for purchasing smaller and less costly devices instead of upgrading their smartphones.
As a result, there has been a lot of movement in the wearables industry, particularly with a renewed focus on health and well-being. This was evident in Google’s acquisition of Fitbit for $2.1 billion this January.
But even before the pandemic, research and innovation were underway to improve the capabilities of wearable technology to monitor health vitals. An example is cuffless blood pressure monitoring to prevent high blood pressure and hypertension that could lead to the risk of heart attack and stroke.
The United Kingdom’s Aktiaa is a wearable blood pressure device available. It’s classed as a medical device— meaning, it meets health and safety standards in Europe. It takes readings every 90 minutes and sends the data to a mobile device.
The Samsung Health Monitor mobile app uses a PPG sensor in the Samsung Galaxy Watch 3 or Galaxy Watch Active, both released pre-pandemic, to take blood pressure readings. It’s been reported that Apple registered a patent that describes or measures blood pressure using pressure sensors in the wristband of a wearable.
Wearable developers have been launching products that offer other health applications such as sleep monitoring for sleep apnea. ECG sensors available on Apple Watch, Samsung Galaxy Watch 3, and Fitbit Sense can measure heart rhythms to detect heart irregularities.
At this point, it’s important to note that experts take a hopeful yet cautious approach to using wearables to monitor health. So, please do not substitute medical advice with a fitness tracker or smartwatch.
In the future, we could see innovations in electronic skin patches (smart patches) to continuously monitor skin glucose, cardiovascular, temperature, respiratory, pregnancy and newborns, hydration, medical implants and sleep. Artificial Intelligence can be leveraged to analyze data collected to make suggestions for better health – how long to sleep or what and when to eat.
Other than health applications, the possibilities of wearable technology are only limited to the imagination.
Remember Google Glass? This trend could reemerge with a bit of ingenuity. Global market intelligence firm IDC projects that Augmented Reality, or AR, glasses will become popular for industrial and enterprise businesses. For example, designers for a car manufacturer may use AR glasses to overlay images on physical car models to evaluate design options and make improvements.
The general public will also see new AR glasses soon. In March, Facebook unveiled details for a wristband for controlling AR glasses that is in development and is expected to release Ray-Ban smart glasses later this year as part of a broader goal of developing more advanced eyewear.
Smart fabrics could be in our future. These fabrics contain sensors to monitor health vitals. Taking this a step further, Google’s Project Jacquard aims to turn clothing into wearable hardware that is sensitive to touch. Imagine tapping your sleeve to change the volume on your earphones, or answering a call by flipping your wrist.
Now a smart mask doesn’t seem that far-fetched. The sky is the limit, really, when it comes to wearable technology.
Technology is finding its way into every aspect of our lives. So why not fashion and clothing?
—Jay R. Shedd is the Chief Marketing Officer at IT&E, the largest wireless service and sales provider in Guam and the Marianas. He has more than 30 years of experience in the telecommunications industry.