From the humble beginnings of fitness trackers to ground-breaking ‘virtual skin’ which can keep an eye on your health, the wearables sector has developed at breakneck speed in recent years.
The industry was valued at $61.30 billion in 2022 and is expected to expand at an annul growth rate of 14.6% between 2023 and 2030 . Industry giants like Apple, Garmin and Fitbit have been leading the charge, but increasingly ‘fashion’ brands such as Fossil have moved into the market, with competition also coming from start-ups.
Growth has been driven by two factors: The ready availability of new technology and consumer demand, particularly in the lifestyle and fitness space. Wearables such as smartwatches that track oxygen levels and heartrate have become a staple for most people who like to stay active, accounting for around 50% of the market .
But wearables are also becoming a vital tool of the health industry, used to monitor things such as blood sugar in real-time. The health wearables market alone is expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 28.1% from 2022 to 2030, driven primarily by the growth in areas such as remote patient monitoring and home healthcare.
Athletes have also adopted wearables such as sensors in running shoes and chest straps, which monitor performance to help them continue to push the boundaries of human endurance.
Looking to the future, wearables look set to become part of our everyday lives, with advances in how they’re powered and improved manufacturing techniques meaning we could literally be wearing them on our eyeballs to enhance our vision, or have them sewn throughout our clothes as ‘smart material’, all powered by movement with no need for cumbersome batteries or recharging periods.
Like all technology where bulk is a factor in design, the biggest barrier to wearable technology has been power. Even the most basic wearable has to find space for technology like microprocessors and sensors, while still being both aesthetically pleasing for consumers and small and light enough to remain both practical and usable. Refinements in battery tech have meant more power-hungry features could be supported, while keeping the footprint of wearable devices to an appropriate scale .
The development of lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries has led to significant advances in this field. Li-ion batteries are superior to the bulky battery packs used in earlier devices. They have a relatively high energy output and low weight-to-volume ratios. They’re also cost effective to produce on a commercial scale.
The use of smaller components has also meant wearables can connect to the internet themselves using tech such as BluetoothTM Low Energy (BLE), Wi-Fi and built-in cellular connectivity, rather than having to be paired with a smartphone first.
This is thanks to improved manufacturing methods such as rigid-flex printed-circuit-boards (PCBs) that allow for more parts to be included in a smaller space.
These design refinements have allowed self-contained Internet of Things access, which in turn has opened up the sector to more start-ups which did not have to rely on the availability of compatible apps and firmware in order to make their technology work.
The proliferation of 5G networks has also meant better connectivity and faster data transfer.
Wearables were previously simply a collection of sensors, but where any real number-crunching done by machine learning (ML) or artificial intelligence (AI) had to be undertaken in the cloud. Not any more. Edge technology means the wearables themselves can now do the heavy lifting of analysis and computations needed to provide users with the data and information they require. This reduces latency and removes issues around connectivity.
In addition to the refinements and availability of technology, there has also been a cultural shift. Generations Z and Alpha want greater connectivity in every aspect of their lives. This is illustrated by the increasing proliferation of wearable tech in general. According to one study there were 212 million smartwatch users worldwide at the end of 2022 .
Wearables have traditionally been seen as lifestyle accessories, something which were simply ‘nice’ to have. They could provide access to emails or fitness tracking data on the go. But they are now being viewed as something which could augment healthcare and help cut costs for health industries.
Sensors which monitor complex medical conditions are increasingly being deployed worldwide, often implanted or worn in non-intrusive ways without the need for bulky batteries or smartphone connectivity. For example, insulin pumps with built-in glucose monitors help to improve the lives of people with diabetes. This type of use will continue to expand, with more medical uses in the pipeline.
Hearables are also gaining popularity. They can filter out unwanted noise pollution and augment soundwaves to increase the quality of sound in everyday life. Another type of tech in development are smart contact lenses. They fit over the eye and can provide real-time, hands-free information similar to a heads-up display used by pilots. They could also be used to correct vision problems, adapting to outside lighting conditions to augment a person’s sight.
The Terasaki Institute for Biomedical Innovation has also created ‘wearable skin’ which can monitor health . This e-skin patch can be placed on the chest area and has a small wireless transmitter to relay health information.
Smart clothing is another growth area. The Commuter x Jacquard, part of a collaboration between Levi's and Google, is a denim jacket which connects to smartphones via Bluetooth to enable tasks such as screening phone calls and controlling music volume. Further developments are expected in this field, with clothing that can monitor health and help control body temperature as well as make a fashion statement.
Perhaps the biggest technological breakthrough which is helping take the industry forward is power. Batteries continue to be the biggest barrier to what wearables look like and where they can be fitted. But wearables have been developed which use the body’s own movement to power them. An example of this energy harvesting technology is piezoelectricity. Piezoelectric ceramic materials can convert body vibrations into energy.
Other methods include systems based on triboelectricity — energy generated by friction — solar energy, and biofuel cells that use the body’s microbial processes.
Connectivity looks likely to be the most common trend — as well as the biggest barrier to growth — for the industry going forward. Consumers expect seamless connectivity, simplicity of use and increasingly, cross-compatibility. For example, clothes that can monitor body temperature and a skin sensor that can monitor perspiration —all combining with a smart watch that uses AI to compile results and send them to the cloud for medical monitoring — will require inter-compatibility between each different system (many of which may be produced by different manufacturers and use different software). This is something the industry will be working towards, but by its very nature also remains a challenge due to the sheer amount of disparate manufacturers.
Battery size and power in general will continue to be a challenge to further development. And while Li-ion batteries are adequate at the moment, they are not keeping pace with growing power requirements.
Hope is on the horizon though with breakthroughs in technology such as energy harvesting. New ways of powering devices will see continued refinements in the way wearables are designed and the tasks they can perform.
Mouser Electronics is a worldwide leading authorized distributor of semiconductors and electronic components for over 1,200 manufacturer brands. They specialize in the rapid introduction of new products and technologies for design engineers and buyers. Their extensive product offering includes semiconductors, interconnects, passives, and electromechanical components.