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Time is Ripe for Wearables

A few weeks ago, I met up with an industry colleague for lunch. Shortly after we were seated he spotted that I had traded my shining watch for a rubber band activity tracker. After a quick tour of my new gadget and its companion app on my smartphone, he pointed at his $10K Panerai watch and quipped giddily that it would be the last in his collection. Well, I may have just saved him a good chuck of change and potentially a few inches off his waistline. That was an easy trade, and such a trend is likely irreversible.

I’d be worried if I were a Swiss watchmaker who has been resting on his laurels for decades. The global watch market is about $56B annually, of which, the majority of sales come from luxury watches priced $800 and above. Fewer millennials are seen sporting luxury brand watches. Instead, they choose to decorate their wrists with colorful bands/bracelets of all sorts: motivational, emotional or cultural. A recent survey showed that many youngsters check their smartphone over 120 times a day. So why does anyone still need a watch for timekeeping? Wearable electronics, including smartbands, clips, watches, glasses, etc., are widely touted as the 4th wave of computing, and they are coming. While many of us have worn a tacky black square electronic watch from the ’70s, clearly not your father’s gadget, the new breed of wearables are much smarter. With an always on connection through your smartphone, you are constantly connected with friends, earning rewards from your actions, playing games in a virtual world, and receiving coaching/motivational tips. Wearables can beam you up with bite size, glance-able info all day long, or at least save you from pulling the phone out of your pocket just to check the time. Many wearables in the market today are not quite prevalent yet. They may still look like "something designed by Silicon Valley people for Silicon Valley people," as one of my friends correctly pointed out.

A device which I’ll be wearing in the near future is likely to measure my physiological signs, monitor the ambient environment, watch my mood, and alert me with anything worthy of my attention. Despite the additional features, by no means do I foresee the bulky mechanical watch catalyzed by the likes of Panerai trend fashioned in the last several years to repeat in the new wearables. Contrarily, new technologies such as flexible electronics can be woven into your clothes or even tattooed to your skin and draw energy from your kinetics. This is not science fiction. In the other words, the wearable electronics will "disappear" and become true wearables. VC investors are enamored with the wearable category, pouring hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years. Even far fetched devices ignored by the traditional VCs are churning out with crowd funding. Agreeing with market, Qualcomm Ventures, the investment arm of Qualcomm Incorporated recently invested in Fitbit, one of the market leaders in developing wearable technology. There are nearly as many cellphones as the number of humans on this planet. Many of us are wearing a dumb watch, dumb glasses, or a dumb headset. It’s likely that one day, in the near future, we’ll wake up to find that all of these have become smart wearables.

Back to the lunch table, I gently tapped my Fitbit Flex band, only two of five LEDs lit up, signaling that I have been sitting for most of the morning. I had a grin on my face since I purposely parked my car in the far corner of the parking lot. When lunch was up, I marched towards my 10K step goal for the day, fighting to stay ahead of my office mates on the leader board.

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