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In the Age of Intelligent Edge Computing, Just How Smart Will Wearable Devices Become?

Personal Devices Market Research, Analysis and Commentary

Intelligent Edge (IE) computing is creating a tectonic shift across the Internet of Things (IoT) Consumer Electronics (CE) landscape. As computers shrink, technology is being integrated into a wider array of smart, connected, computational and controlling devices beyond the traditional PC or mobile phone. But just how smart will smaller devices like wearables and headphones become?

The Intelligent 'Edge' is a place where technology interacts. It's everywhere; within the Internet of Things, wearables, headphones, smart appliances, smart homes, smart cities, roads, lamp posts etc. All are connected to a wider IoT ecosystem and benefiting from operational, analytical or IT 'smarter' IE capabilities that were formerly confined to cloud data centres.

Across both the wearable and headphone sectors, Futuresource is seeing major brands such as Apple and Samsung investing heavily into the connected IE IoT ecosystem. IE computing creates 'smarter' CE devices, including headphones and wearables that can input or output terminals to or from the cloud, (where CE is generally dumb) relying on it for certain input e.g. content distribution or data for 'learning', similar to software updates. This reduces pressure on the network, improves speed and allays security concerns concerning having data in the cloud.

Voice operability and connectivity is increasingly an attractive feature across smart CE product categories. Currently, voice assistant activation in headphones is generating a lot of interest from both vendors and consumers. This feature helps users control music, phone settings and social media with their voice. This is available now by pressing a button on a number of headphones: Apple Airpods with Siri; Google Pixel Buds with Google; Samsung Gear Icon X 2018 with Bixby; and Jabra Elite 65t with Alexa. 

Further to this, according to Futuresource, "Access to voice-based applications e.g. OK Google and Siri etc. will grow rapidly from 2019 onwards. In terms of smart headphones, they will soon be able to recognise wake words, use the data network from the phones or smartwatches, as well as connecting to the cloud to access music or navigation to other apps," commented Zlata Jelisejeva, Research Analyst at Futuresource Consulting, citing trends from the latest Futuresource Worldwide Headphone Report.

This may also be the case when it comes to wearables, which according to the Futuresource Global Wearables Report saw 95 million-unit shipments in 2017. Fundamentally, computers in a variety of form factors are planted on certain parts of the body and optimised for specific applications e.g. watches for telling the time and tracking wrist movement and pulse; headphones for listening to music and voice interaction; clothes for controlling body temperature (digitally); and so on. But what is the relationship between the phone and wearables and how much functionality will transfer from the mobile to the smart wearables - such as headphones – due to improved IE computing capacity? 

Generally, Futuresource assumes that consumers won't duplicate features between multiple devices based on cost or battery life, with some features remaining dormant in a device if they don't add much to the Bill of Materials (BOM) cost. However, the smartwatch is likely to be the most feature-rich wearable device. "Usability and improved form factors are the key attributes that Futuresource believes will drive the market forward as this resonates with consumers. In particular, reducing the size and weight of smartwatches, improvements to battery life, making them standalone and adding phoneless connectivity with music streaming are just a few of the key use-cases of this, along with navigation/sports tracking. But it won't be the only wearable device. Smart headphones will play a role and they will interact with watches," commented James Manning Smith, Research Analyst at Futuresource Worldwide Wearables Report.

With this in mind, a key assumption is that the mobile phone will remain the primary computing device for all consumers for the foreseeable future (5 years at least), largely because it's a convenient form factor and has a large screen and camera. However, over that time, Futuresource assumes wearables will share, and in some cases, take away, a number of functions from the mobile phone e.g. payments, music control, etc. This in turn will change the role and design of the mobile phone as well as wearables, including headphones. 

So, just how smart will wearables, like headphones become? It is all about what features make sense, (beyond niche applications such as serious sports use) based on its unique position on the body, in the ear, close to the mouth and on the head (movement, line of sight), full music control, search and discovery, VA Access, turn-by-turn navigation and potentially much more. "Some things just don't make sense in terms of duplicating what is in the phone or leveraging the natural benefits of the headphones form factor versus other form factors e.g. watches. Most of the smart features will remain tethered in headphones, at least for the next three years. Due to power consumption and duplication of features, it is not really logical to make headphones even smarter," concluded Jelisejeva.

Date Published:

James Manning Smith

About the author

James Manning Smith

James is a member of the Education team and contributes to research and analysis in the K-12 PC Market. James joined Futuresource in 2016 after graduating from the University of Nottingham with a Masters’ Degree in International Business. In previous roles James led global research in the Mobile Technology, Wearables, Gaming and VR Sectors.

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