What is wearable tech? Everything you need to know explained

Wearable tech, fitness trackers and smartwatches explained
A newbie's guide to wearables

Wearable tech is one of the fastest-advancing sectors of the wider technology industry, now outpacing the development of smartphones. From the basic fitness trackers and highly-advanced sports and smartwatches, to virtual and augmented reality headsets, wearables are everywhere.

The sector has even spawned an entire ‘hearables’ subcategory of tech placed in the ear to deliver music, but also offer access to smart assistants. Basically, there's a whole lot happening in the space. If you're a newcomer to this world and want to get up to speed with the world of wearables, we've broken it all down for you below.

Essential reading: The A-Z of wearable tech terms

Have any burning questions? Fire away in the comments section below.

What exactly is wearable tech?

What is wearable tech? Everything you need to know explained

The new age of wearables tap into the connected self – they're laden with smart sensors that track our movements and biometrics, often using Bluetooth to sync wirelessly to a smartphone. Others also rely on Wi-Fi connectivity and standalone mobile 4G LTE data connections.

Wearables use sensors to connect to you as a person, helping you to achieve goals such as staying fit and active, losing weight, being more organized or tracking your overall mental and physical health. In the case of VR and AR heads-up displays, they’re providing a wealth of new entertainment and educational opportunities, as well as enhancing the world around us.

How do you wear them?

The early generations of wearables saw devices clipped to our bodies, as the prime focus was tracking movement through motion sensors. However, advancements brought a wide-range of powerful sensors, which require direct contact with the skin. Thus, the tech gravitated to other body parts: the wrists, fingers, chest, forearms, ears, eyes, forehead, temple and anywhere else you can think of (yes, even those parts).

What kinds of wearables are there?

There are multiple categories of wearables. Some products manage exist in more than one, while a few others define categories all of their own.

Smartwatches

What is wearable tech? Everything you need to know explained

Smartwatches are wrist-worn devices that connect to your mobile phone to act as mini-windows onto your digital life. The mighty Apple Watch, a relative latecomer to the smartwatch arena, now dominates the landscape. It brings notifications and calls from the iPhone screen and tracks your physical activity. There’s independent GPS for location services and an LTE model.

Beyond the Apple Watch, Google’s own Wear OS is the equivalent for Android phone users. Watches like the Fossil Explorist Q and others from Huawei headline here, while the Mobvoi TicWatch Pro and its siblings are becoming increasingly popular.

Other Apple Watch rivals are going their own route. Samsung uses its own Tizen OS on wearables like the Galaxy Watch Active, Garmin is playing in this space too while Fitbit is straddling the smartwatch/fitness tracker categories with popular watches like the Fitbit Versa, running the bespoke Fitbit OS.

Essential round-up: The best smartwatch

Fitness trackers

What is wearable tech? Everything you need to know explained

Fitness trackers remain very popular among people who want to track progress through heart rate, steps and estimated calorie burn, while receiving some smartphone notifications. They’re perfect if you don’t/want super-advanced metrics provided by sports watches, or don’t want a mini smartphone like the Apple Watch. They also offer longer battery life than smartphones.

The latest devices like the Fitbit Charge 3 – our current fitness tracker of the year – offer heart-rate tracking, sleep tracking, waterproofing and swim tracking, smartphone notifications and, importantly, a seven-day battery life. Samsung and Garmin also offer some excellent options depending on your needs.

There are Fitbit trackers for all sectors of the market, but our budget pick, the $40 Xioami Mi Band 4, delivers functional options for those entering the wearable arena. Overall quality and accuracy take a hit.

Essential round up: The best fitness trackers

Sports watches

What is wearable tech? Everything you need to know explained

For those active types who love running, cycling, swimming or even golf, a dedicated sports watch should be at the top of your wearable wish list. These devices should have GPS (don't be suckered into one that doesn’t) with heart rate tracking and associated insights. This data can provide another level of information about your chosen sport, and take your training to the next level.

Garmin leads the way with its series of GPS sports watches. The flagship Forerunner 945 is designed for elite triathletes who require Olympic-level biometric training programs, including metrics like “VO2 max and training status with adjustments for heat, altitude acclimation status, training load focus, recovery time, and aerobic and anaerobic training effects.” There’s a full colour display and on board maps and Spotify offline syncing. Options like the Polar Vantage V and Suunto 9 Baro are great for those seeking a high-end training watch.

The best sports watches run upwards of $500, but there are options at friendlier price points. The Garmin Forerunner 45 still delivers accurate GPS and represents incredible fantastic value at $200.

Essential round-up: The best running watches

Head-mounted displays

What is wearable tech? Everything you need to know explained

They’re generally classified into virtual reality and augmented reality categories. Some straddle both.

VR

VR headsets, like the higher-end Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR, block out the rest of the world. They’re connected to a PC/games console and present a computer-generated virtual reality to fool your brain into thinking it's somewhere else entirely.

Sitting in between those and the cheaper VR headsets are the likes of the Oculus Quest and the upcoming Vive Cosmos. Both offer high end VR experiences in a standalone setup.

You can experiment with VR by inserting your smartphone into a Google Cardboard headset for around $15. Google Daydream and Samsung Gear VR headsets offer greater quality for under $100, while the Oculus Go offers affordable standalone virtual reality experience, free from a smartphone and a PC.

Essential round-up: The best VR headsets

AR/smartglasses

What is wearable tech? Everything you need to know explained

Augmented reality headsets and smart glasses enhance the real world by placing virtual elements in our line of sight. So a large projector screen could appear to be on your living room wall, or a game of Minecraft could be happening on your dinner table. If you’re walking around a city, you could see restaurant recommendations or turn-by-turn directions.

Microsoft’s Hololens headsets and the range of third-party Windows Mixed Reality devices lead the way, but there are a growing range of smartglasses that perform the function in more recognisable form factors. The Eyesight Raptor and Solos glasses for cyclists, for example, enable serious riders to keep their eyes on the road and keep track of all their stats, maps and weather.

This is still an emerging category, a long way from reaching the mainstream, but Apple’s rumored interest in building AR hardware could change all that.

Essential round-up: Best AR headsets and smartglasses

Hearables

What is wearable tech? Everything you need to know explained

The fastest-emerging segment of the wearable market is hearables, which are worn in the ear. The most popular example is Apple’s AirPods, those true wireless earphones that offer quick access to the Siri voice assistant. Similarly, any pair of head/earphones that interacts with a voice assistant like Alexa and the Google Assistant is considered a hearable device.

There are also live translation tools like Google’s Pixel Buds and the Waverley Labs Pilot, smart hearing aids like the Nuheara IQbuds Boost, and the Lifebeam Vi headset for on-board virtual run coaching. The Bose Frames for example, combine bone conduction audio, augmented reality visuals and access to smart assistants all in a pair of sunglasses.

Unfortunately, not all is rosy in the hearable garden. Bragi, makers of the excellent Dash earphones has exited the wearable market. However, we’re excited for the forthcoming developments from the players that still remain in this space.

Essential round-up: Best hearables and smart earbuds

Consumer health

What is wearable tech? Everything you need to know explained

A huge growth area for wearable technology is consumer health. We’re not just talking about improving fitness here. The insights from medical class sensors in consumer wearable products are already saving lives. The FDA-approved electrocardiogram (ECG) in the Apple Watch can detect signs of A-Fib, while it’ll also check for an irregular heartbeat at regular intervals. The fall detection tool can alert the emergency services/contacts if you take a tumble.

Related: The science behind ECG explained

It’s tools like these that are broadening the appeal of wearables to new audiences. The Dreem 2 headset – which is seeking out FDA approval – is taking on chronic insomnia with cognitive behavioural therapy. The company says 80% of its users experience relief after just six weeks.

There are wearable blood sugar monitors, blood pressure monitors and even sweat trackers that’ll tell you when you need to hydrate. The Flow headset is certified to treat depression, while L’Oreal is selling the My Skin Track UV patch, which indicates your exposure to damaging UV rays.

What have wearables still got to get right?

What is wearable tech? Everything you need to know explained

Although wearables have improved exponentially in the last few years, the journey is far from complete. The Apple Watch, for example, still lacks sleep tracking nous, making its pitch as a holistic wellness tracking device highly questionable. Until battery life exceeds the need to charge nightly, that isn’t changing. The key to that could be the rumored deployment of less power-hungry micro LED displays.

Google could double its efforts on Wear OS and still be accused of half-assing it. Hardly any Wear OS watches are using the newer Snapdragon 3100 SoC that could improve battery life and efficiency either.

Although Fitbit has introduced female health tracking, there’s still a long way to go. We expect to see more wearable companies dedicate more of their efforts to exploring an area largely untapped market.

Hearables are showing promise, but we want hands-free support for personal assistants like Siri and true real-time language translation without needing a companion app or without lag.

Then there's smart clothing. A wearable sector that we've often championed to be the one that will truly bring wearables to the masses. Development challenges remain and while we seen a few standout examples like the Nadi X smart yoga pants and fitness garments from the likes of Athos and Hexoskin, it's still not really taken off.

Overall, we’re only scratching the surface when it comes to biometrics. Sensors are giving us access to more data and it’s increasingly accurate. However, the true value comes through the ability to interpret that data with actionable insights. This myriad of data points can be married more effectively to provide a greater overall picture of our health.

When it comes to virtual reality, it may already have peaked without a killer app and issues with motion sickness endure for lots of users. With augmented reality we’re yet to see anything outstanding that can significantly enhance lives. But it's early days for AR and we anticipate that there's more to come in the quest to merge our real world with a virtual one.

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  • Hilary·

    Exciting to known about these