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How to Cash In on the Wearable Computing Boom

From brainwave readers to exercise trackers, wearable devices are taking off--and creating a big opportunity for start-ups.
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The famous line from Socrates that the unexamined life is not worth living has taken on a new meaning in the modern era. A wave of companies, many of them start-ups funded through sites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo, is creating wearable electronic tracking devices for nearly every part of the human body, from brainwave-monitoring headbands to smart socks. And analysts expect the industry to explode over the next five years.

Retail revenue from wearable technology is predicted to jump from about $1.4 billion in 2013 to as much as $19 billion in 2018, according to a new study from Juniper Research. Here’s a quick industry snapshot. If you want in, move fast: There’s hardly any room left on the human body that isn’t about to be covered by a device. 

Exercise Trackers

So far, most wearable devices are activity trackers, and the competition for customers’ wrist space is especially fierce. There are so many companies in this space that it is starting to see consolidation: In April, Jawbone bought BodyMedia for an estimated $100 million. One of the most formidable competitors in this category is Fitbit. Its new Force tracker, which doubles as a smartwatch, could steal market share from the likes of Pebble and Samsung's Galaxy Gear.

Life-Logging Devices

Now that people share every mundane moment of their lives on Facebook and Twitter, the natural next step is a 24-hour video log. Camera maker GoPro has a big lead in this space, particularly among sports enthusiasts. The company already sells north of $500 million a year worth of cameras, which can be mounted to one’s body. But there may be an opportunity for less-conspicuous recording devices that can be worn all day, every day. Start-ups such as Narrative and Kapture have already managed to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars via crowdfunding sites.

Brainwave Readers

Judging by the new breed of headwear devices that respond to human brainwaves, it’s hard to tell whose dystopian vision of the future won out: George Orwell’s 1984 or Woody Allen’s Sleeper. Fortunately, these devices from start-ups such as InteraXon and Emotiv aren’t meant to police a person’s innermost thoughts but rather to improve concentration and give a user hands-free control of connected devices. If these products manage to live up to their claims, they could attract a big following. InteraXon has already raised more than $6 million in VC funding.

Clothes

Now that the technology exists to weave sensors into washable garments, expect to see more clothing like the forthcoming smart shirts from start-ups Hexoskin and OMsignal. The upside: Putting sensors into clothing provides more accurate and detailed information about vital signs and physical activity than wrist devices do. The downside: The clothes don’t seem particularly affordable or practical. (Hexoskin’s shirt, out in early 2014, is priced at $399.) Will consumers want to wear the same shirt every day?

Glasses

In what seems like the longest product rollout in history--thanks in part to 10,000 influential beta testers--Google Glass is set to hit the market in 2014. Google’s delay has opened the door for other companies designing their own specs with built-in displays. Microsoft is reportedly testing a rival eyewear device, and start-ups such as Vergence Labs and Recon Instruments are launching their own niche models.

Watches

When it raised $10 million on Kickstarter, Pebble proved there was huge customer demand for a high-tech watch that notifies users of incoming emails or phone calls. But before long, the category will be crowded with big competitors. Samsung is heavily promoting its Galaxy Gear, and Apple, Sony, and Google are all expected to launch their own watches soon.

From the Dec. 2013/Jan. 2014 issue of Inc. magazine

RYAN UNDERWOOD

Ryan Underwood is a writer and editor living in Nashville, Tennessee.




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