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.
- Demystify wearable tech: The A-Z of wearable tech terms
- Our reviews compared: Best smartwatches 2020
- What's next: Hottest wearable tech trends for 2020
- Buy the best: Which Fitbit is right for you?
What exactly is wearable tech?
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 are wrist-worn devices that connect to your mobile phone to act as mini-windows onto your digital life. The mighty Apple Watch 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.
Fitbit is in on the act with the excellent Fitbit Versa 2, which is heavy on health features with blood oxygen tracking and top-notch sleep tracking.
Other Apple Watch rivals are going their own route. Samsung uses its own Tizen OS on wearables like the Galaxy Watch Active 2.
But things are getting cheaper. Xiaomi has dominated fitness trackers and is looking to repeat the trick with the Xiaomi Mi Watch, and Amazfit can't stop undercutting the competition with the likes of the Amazfit GTS and Amazfit T-Rex.
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.
The Fitbit Inspire HR is a great, lower cost and less techy alternative – as is the $40 Xioami Mi Band 4, delivers functional options for those entering the wearable arena. Overall quality and accuracy take a hit.
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.”
The Fenix 6 series is perhaps the ultimate sports watch, and features all of the top features from the company's running, trekking, outdoors, swimming and golf devices – and features tracking for every sport imaginable.
The best sports watches run upwards of , but there are options at friendlier price points. The Garmin Forerunner 45 still delivers accurate GPS and represents incredible fantastic value at .
They’re generally classified into virtual reality and augmented reality categories. Some straddle both.
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.
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
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
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
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: ECG wearables 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?
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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