'Hearables' and clothing to grow fastest in wearables market, IDC says

Smartwatches are one of the largest wearable segments, but have struggled to gain traction in the mass market

Wearable devices that double as clothing or get worn on the ear will grow the fastest of all wearables in the next five years, market research firm IDC said Monday.

Earworn devices, sometimes called "hearables," will grow by 43% every year over that period, IDC said. They started from a small base: just 700,000 devices shipped in 2016.

Clothing will grow by 77% a year, starting at 2016's level of 1.3 million clothing wearables shipped, IDC added.

Earwear and clothing together will still make up only 11% of the wearable device market in 2021, well behind smartwatches and a group of wearables that IDC calls "basic" watches.

Today, these two groups of watches make up nearly half the wearables market, with about 49 million units shipped in 2016 out of 102 million total wearables shipped. Watches will jump to 152 million shipped in 2021, IDC predicted.

In the past two years, smartwatches and the more basic models struggled to find a mass market because the value propostion wasn't clear, IDC said. "Most potential customers saw watches performing multiple functions, but none of them worked exceptionally well to accomplish a myriad of tasks," said Ramon Llamas, an IDC analyst.

The trend will be to segment the devices into niches like kids' watches, athletic watches, luxury and fashion watches and more, he said. TAG Heuer sells the Connected smartwatch in the luxury category for $1,500, for example.

One of the biggest watch segments is kids' watches that offer location tracking for parents. "They aren't as well-known in the U.S. but they are big in Asia," said IDC analyst Jitesh Ubrani.

Earwear will be broken into wearables categories such fitness tracking and coaching, while others will have features such as noise canceling and enhanced audio. Doppler Labs, maker of Here One earbuds, takes the concept of noise-canceling headphones to a smaller form factor.

There's also the prospect of real-time language translation with a hearable, Ubrani said. In one example, Mymanu, a UK-based startup, announced its Clik wireless earbuds earlier this year that can translate in up to 37 languages. The price is reportedly $190.

Clothing wearables are still an emerging market, but Llamas said clothes are being designed to track fitness and to communicate with workers. In one example, a first responder heading into a dangerous situation could have his heart rate or commands transmitted via his outer wear.

At Mobile World Congress in February, outdoor gear for marine rescue personnel was shown that can detect when the jacket is immersed in water and then transmit that information to a remote location.

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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