Fitness wearables are a booming industry. Like most technology, the trend is driven by constant innovation. Wearable technology can be seen to stretch back to the early 1500s, when the Nuremberg Egg became one of the first portable timekeeping devices, or even the 1600s, which saw the rise of the abacus ring in China. The modern concept of wearable technology is much more recent, of course, when the 1960s and 1970s gave birth to technology like the calculator watch and, more pertinently, the Manpo-kei pedometer. Technology evolves quickly, so by the 1980s, the Polar PE2000 became the first biometric watch and displayed live BPM, and by 2006, 3D accelerometers reached the market to eventually become the norm. New smartphone apps, digital communities, and even clothes with embedded technologies, which both respond to user demands and spur them to evolve behaviors are revolutionizing the market.
However, it’s important to understand just how much these fitness-focused wearables appeal to more than just athletes and fitness gurus in the U.S. As of early 2015, one in ten owned one of these devices. Today’s article will take a look at why they’re so popular, what’s working, and points where the industry needs to see growth.
Proof of Market Impact
The general wearables market is expected to reach more than $12 billion through 2018, and the fitness tracker market alone is expected to hit $2 billion by 2019. Meanwhile, the market for smart fabrics (i.e., digital and interactive fabrics) is expected to reach $2 billion by 2018 as well. Shipments of healthcare wearables worldwide have reached more than 13 million units, while the sale of fitness gadgets has reached more than 43 million. Smart clothing is projected to see more than 16 million shipped by 2021.
Beyond the dollar value, a significant portion of consumers surveyed in 2015 planned to buy fitness trackers and related technology. About 27% of consumers planned to buy a wearable fitness device, and another 27% planned to buy smart apparel. Meanwhile, 30% of consumers planned to buy a fitness app, which is typically used in conjunction with fitness wearables. With the popularity and growth of this technology since 2015, it’s estimated that these numbers are even higher now.
To understand the appeal, it’s important to grasp what type of technology we’re talking about. Discussing fitness-focused wearable technology can be somewhat tricky because it covers a wide host of product categories. The best known are fitness trackers, and even then there’s a good deal of diversity. Some are clipped to clothes while others are worn on the wrist, and they could be as simple as step counters while others log any number of biometrics. Smart athletic clothing is now coming to the forefront; its debut in 2011 by Under Armor was focused on professional athletes, but the focus is being adopted by everyday consumers.
On the technical side, wearables rely on two things: sensors and connectivity. Regarding sensors, at the most basic, there are motion sensors. As mentioned, 3D accelerometers are preferred since they measure motion on all three axes (up and down, side to side, forward and backward). More advanced models include a gyroscope (for orientation and rotation), altimeter (for altitude as with flights of stairs or mountain hiking), and GPS (for location to measure stride and speed). Utilized together, these can measure step count, acceleration, duration, intensity, and even patterns of movement, which allows some trackers to automatically recognize sleep or particular forms of exercise. This data can be extrapolated to determine calories burned. More advanced biometrics can be established with temperature gauges, light sensors (heart rate), or bioimpedance (fat versus lean mass, arterial flow, respiration, hydration). Athletic wear can expand on that to evaluate breathing efficiency and may be capable of measuring muscle movement.
Most connectivity currently relies on a mobile device, but with the advent of smart watches that operate independently and the growing adoption of the Internet of Things, fitness-focused devices are likely to be more and more capable of operating independently. The important part is connecting to an app or other fitness accounts, which provide relevant information such as gender, height, and current weight. This improves the accuracy of data
Who’s Using Fitness-Focused Wearables
The reason behind the rising popularity of this technology also lies with its market segment. Most people who own wearable tech are Millennials (48%), and most of those who want it are younger (71% are 16 to 24 years) and male (71%). With regard to fitness trackers specifically, 36% are Gen-Xers. While younger generations are more socially conscious, this generation is getting older and is thus more directly health conscious. Furthermore, the younger generations are favoring devices that serve multiple purposes (e.g., the Apple Watch, which acts as a tracker in conjunction with various apps). More than 40% have an income that’s at least $100 thousand annually, although it’s worth noting that the next largest income demographic are those making $45 thousand or less. More than half (54%) are women.
When looking at which brands are front-runners, the most recognizable brands operate in the fitness tracker space, and most are worn on the wrist. Fitbit is, by far, the market leader, both in fitness and for wearables in general, and is responsible for 4.7 million of the wearables shipped in Q3 2015 and is considered the leader thanks to its focus on general fitness and affordable options. Other top brands include Garmin (best recognized for its active and outdoor technology, including GPS and satellite communicators), Misfit (which prides itself on its simplicity in design and program), Jawbone (recognized for pushing the technology forward), and Moov (which offers a comprehensive training regimen).
Smart fitness apparel is still building momentum, but it’s already attracting fashion leaders like Ralph Lauren. Typical athletic companies like Adidas and Nike have dipped their toes in because of consumer interest, while those often tied to professional athletes are also driving technology (e.g., Under Armor). Brands like Hexoskin (shirts), Experia (socks), and OMsignal (full collection) have built a steady presence thanks to answering consumer needs. By far the most outstanding is Athos, which is not only propelling the technology forward with its built-in EMG sensors, it’s striving to develop low-cost options that can cut out and outperform expensive trainers.
The primary interest for consumers to pick up fitness-focused wearables is to help them improve their health, and 80% of wearables owners say that their devices have had a positive impact on their life and another 29% say the device has helped improve their performance. Another 73% believe that the biometric accuracy will eventually be able to directly affect your health. Some 35% of consumers use their device to track steps, and another 18% use them for heart rate monitoring. More broadly, 42% purchased the device to track their overall activity, and 28% did so specifically to manage their weight.
As popular as this technology is, there’s certainly a great deal of room to improve and grow. For instance, some studies seem to show that trackers don’t improve a user’s ability to lose weight. However, it’s important to have some perspective: Fitness wearables alone are not enough to influence long term change. They need to be utilized by consumers who intend to make a change in their life, and often need to be used in conjunction with other health-related or fitness programs and trainers. Certainly, there’s a market for this as a product — Fitbit’s new FitStar app gives users a virtual trainer, regularly scheduled fitness programs, and premium options for upgraded regimes, although its efficacy remains to be tested.
One of the biggest reasons that consumers abandon their fitness wearables is accuracy; of the 37% of users that abandoned their tracker, 29% said it was due to either inaccuracy or not having faith in its accuracy. This is the biggest driver for evolving technology. Consider heart rate monitoring: many trackers didn’t use it at all, then some adopted the photosensor that monitors capillaries; now leaders like Jawbone utilize bioimpedance. Similar advances can be seen in smart athletic apparel, as with the electromyography sensors developed for Athos. If Athos succeeds, there may be a new market that opens up bridging the gap between the “wellness” portion of the fitness market and actual medical applications.
Interestingly, the biggest reason is that charging their wearables is a hassle (40%). Most users wear their trackers daily (56%), and considering the fact that most trackers offer some form of sleep tracking, the intent is to wear the device constantly. Keeping track of the charge and having to have regular access to its charging cables isn’t complicated or even all that different from using a smartphone, yet it’s the sort of nuisance that prevents fitness-focused wearables from being frictionless devices. Even smart apparel falls victim to this frustration.
Smart apparel also fields difficulty typical to the fashion industry: matching form and function to scale tends to mean the most significant market audiences are left out. Despite the fact that women are the majority of the fitness-focused wearable consumer base, most athletic wear is either geared entirely for men or designed by them (invariably resulting in overpriced, overcomplicated, and uncomfortable items). For instance, the Hexoskin shirt for women features a built in shelf-bra, but it offers no meaningful support that women look for in activewear, especially for larger sizes. Furthermore, because the sensors need skin contact, women can’t simply have a separate sports bra to wear underneath. Furthermore, all this is for average sized people: those that need this sort of technology most either can’t find these technologies in an appropriate size. To call on Hexoskin again, the largest shirt offered is equivalent to a size 18. Lane Bryant, one of the most ubiquitous plus size retailers, starts at a size 14 and extends to a size 32. All of which leaves aside something as simple as variations in fabric patterns; simply compare smart apparel designs to the most popular activewear available anywhere from Target to Victoria’s Secret, and it becomes obvious they lack in both color and style.
The smart device industry isn’t slowing down anytime soon, and fitness trackers and smart athletic wear are set to grow right along with it. As consumer hunger for more in-depth biometrics increases, the technology utilized in these fitness wearables is sure to evolve as well. It’s sure to further fuel customer interest in this industry segment.