Gangnam Style: Why wearable tech is about to explode in Asia

Bargain fitness bands, luxe Apple gear and bonkers accessories
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From kitsch, mood-measuring cat ears to the 18-karat gold Apple Watch Edition, the success of wearables - in all forms - could be secured in Asia.

We're painting with broad brushstrokes, of course, as this is a continent with vastly varied cultures, customs and levels of disposable income. But with some booming economies, emerging tech-hungry middle classes and some of the world's biggest brands in their backyard, Asian countries are driving the wearable industry.

The early signs point to tech fans in Asia being hungrier for wearables than any other country. In Accenture's 2015 Digital Consumer survey, 32% of participants in the US said they were interested in buying a fitness tracker in the next five years, 27% were interested in a smartwatch. That's fairly promising for an emerging category.

The equivalent figures for China indicated that 67% of participants were "likely to buy a wearable fitness monitor in the next five years" and even more - 73% - were interested in buying a smartwatch.

And the interest is paying off.

Beijing is trialling a $27 smartband which acts as a transport card, discount card and health monitor with plans to roll out the tech to 400 cities across China, Apple is targeting the country for its new smartwatch, alongside Hong Kong and Japan, and Xiaomi has shipped over a million fitness trackers - 100,000 in Taiwan alone.

In short: Asia digs wearables.

Fitness bands first

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Nigel Yap, editor and founder of The Hyped Geek, is based in Selangor, Malaysia and told Wareable that in South East Asia, as in the West, fitness bands are more popular than smartwatches with the likes of Google Glass and VR headsets barely registering as more than gadget curiosities.

"So far smart bands like the Jawbone UP have had some success," he said, "especially in countries with slightly higher middle income above population such as Singapore and Malaysia. There's been an increase in health and fitness monitoring and Jawbone has managed to enter a fitness niche. This is especially among those who don't want to spend a bomb on more dedicated and advanced fitness watches from the likes of Suunto.

"Smartwatches on the other hand haven't fared as well. With maybe a small group of early adopters taking up devices like the Pebble when it first came up, subsequent smartwatch launches like the Samsung Galaxy Gears have yet to have any decent sales or uptake."

There are, of course, plenty of people in the region who have yet to try, buy or wear any wearable tech and it is precisely this group which is ripe for Apple's picking.

"Apple has a pretty strong draw on the Asian population no matter which country you're in and there's this feeling of anticipation for their version of the smartwatch," said Yap. "When the Apple Watch launches, it might not impress those who are already familiar with smartwatches or wearables, but it'll definitely impress most of the general consumers. Of course price would then be a major factor but, from my experience, when it comes to Apple products, especially iPhones, in our part of the world, sometimes no price is too high."

That special relationship

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Here's the very short list of nine launch countries for the Apple Watch: Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the UK, the US, China, Hong Kong and Japan.

Rewind to the launch of the iPhone 4 in 2010 which first went on sale in France, Germany, the UK, the US and Japan. China didn't even make the cut for the second batch of 22 countries to get its latest flagship smartphone.

Times have changed. Every Apple keynote these days seems to start with Tim Cook's glowing references to huge flagship Apple stores in China and the Apple Watch's first magazine cover appearance was on the front of the November 2014 issue of Vogue China. That was before Apple bought out pages and pages of adverts in American Vogue detailing the different strap options available.

In China, prices are much higher, between 16 and 20%, because of the hefty luxury imported goods tax. Apple loyalists there will be expected to pay the equivalent of $413 for the cheapest 38mm Sport model and upwards of $20,000 for the Watch Edition. In theory this sets the Apple Watch up as even more of a status symbol but the 'no price is too high' theory really will be tested to breaking point.

Android to Zen

WareableGangnam Style: Why wearable tech is about to explode in Asia

What about all those people in Asia who went out and bought a Samsung phone? Or a cheaper Android device? The Apple Watch is useless to them.

Asus is one company that's based in Asia, in Taiwan, and has tried to appeal to an international customer base rather than tailor its products to its home continent. Its first smartwatch, the Android Wear-running ZenWatch, continues the naming tradition from the company's sleek line of laptops, but also doesn't shy away from including Eastern ideas of 'zen' and 'calm' in the Wellness app that accompanies the watch.

"It has been launched in Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan and we are considering expanding to more countries," Asus' ZenWatch product manager CY Chang told Wareable.

"The style and beauty is very important for all our customers since it's a wearable device. There's not much difference between Asian customers and others except that maybe Asian countries such as Hong Kong like to try out new stuff."

Read this: The future of hearables -fitness trackers to always-on assistants

With Lenovo's recent acquisition of the 'Made in USA' Motorola, we're also seeing some of its wearable products make their way to China. The Moto 360, which also runs on Android Wear, isn't on sale there yet but the Moto X smartphone and the Moto Hint hearable launched there in January. The rumoured Moto 360 2 should be a shoo-in for a launch in Asia.

And tech giants aside, even relatively fresh independent designers and wearable tech makers, such as Wearable Experiments' Billie Whitehouse, are looking to include China in early launch plans for bold new products.

The copycat economy

Apple and others are pulling out all the stops to sell expensive smartwatches but the real scrum will be at the other end of the market.

Xiaomi sold 100,000 $13 Mi Band fitness trackers in Taiwan alone in one month, and in 2014 shipped 1m in a single quarter. It's available more widely in Asia and has even had some success in developing countries such as Malaysia, largely down to that low price. While we didn't get a smartwatch at its most recent launch event in Beijing, Xiaomi did unveil new items for its budget connected health system including Mi Smart Weight scales.

Gangnam Style: Why wearable tech is about to explode in Asia

However, the infamous Chinese copycat economy is currently turning its sights on the Apple Watch. Hyperdon launched a fake Watch at CES and Zhimeide's sub-$50 D Watch sports an identical design to Cupertino's wearable, even down to the digital crown.

European sites have been selling cheap Chinese smartwatch knockoffs for as little as twenty euros a pop for months now. Twitter user @esalvadord told Wareable that his Lujo R-Watch, a Samsung-style watch built in Shenzhen and bought for twenty five euros on Spanish site Igogo, works perfectly.

Gangnam Style: Why wearable tech is about to explode in Asia

"It works fine," he said, "it's not the Galaxy Gear but it costs ten times less." Other users are tweeting the hashtag #madeinprc (People's Republic of China) with photos of wearable gear and gadgets, sometimes ironically when the workmanship or performance turns out to be shoddy. The 'Made in PRC' tag is also actually used on some products as a rebrand of the (in)famous Made in China logo.

"We will definitely see some copycat devices from China, very likely running Android Wear," said Yap. "They will appeal to a certain segment of the market, especially the cost conscious ones.

"But the Watch might also start to draw more attention to Android Wear devices themselves. So we could see more mid range smartwatches gaining popularity too. The Apple Watch will be the key that unlocks the idea of smartwatches for everyone."

Sound familiar?

How we test


Sophie was Wareable's associate editor. She joined the team from Stuff magazine where she was an in-house reviewer. For three and a half years, she tested every smartphone, tablet, and robot vacuum that mattered. 

A fan of thoughtful design, innovative apps, and that Spike Jonze film, she is currently wondering how many fitness tracker reviews it will take to get her fit. Current bet: 19.

Sophie has also written for a host of sites, including Metro, the Evening Standard, the Times, the Telegraph, Little White Lies, the Press Association and the Debrief.

She now works for Wired.

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