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Wearables in Sport: Why the Wearable Will Ride the ‘Digital Fitness Wave’

A key lesson learnt in the wearables market is that sport sells. With the ‘digital fitness wave’ gathering momentum and driving developments of hardware and software in a variety of sporting verticals, Futuresource has conducted a study looking at the role of wrist-worn wearables in sport. Health and fitness tracking have been a staple of differentiation in consumer electronics over the last fifteen years, with examples such as iPods, classic style watches, wrist-worn wearables and headphones all boasting various health tracking technology. While speed and distance tracking, amongst other metrics, has become embedded on the smartphone or other sport specific devices (such as the bike computer), the wrist-worn wearable is carving out a niche role in certain sports.

This blog will discuss some of the key top-line trends that the report will delve into, examining some of the key trends in the development of fitness device ecosystems, from engaging users with software to the development of new wearable devices for health and fitness tracking.

If Data is the New Oil, then Software is the Pipeline… and the Wearable is the Drill

One of the major trends affecting the digital health and fitness market is how software engages new and existing wearable consumers. Software such as Strava, Nike Running Club or MapMyFitness has demonstrated the effectiveness of gamification in engaging consumers with sports tracking. The ability to track and review the metrics from an exercise, see improvement, share progress and compete with others has proven to be a compelling use case that better engages consumers with software and hardware, in comparison to exercise data being stored offline for personal use only.

As spending on consumer electronics begins to slow worldwide, vendors are seeking additional revenue streams through service offerings, with the acquisition of data being a welcome side effect of this. Tracking and recording software highlights the concept that data is the new oil, enabling a series of use-cases previously unavailable through traditional sports tracking hardware. The ability to delve into thorough sporting metrics may be lost on most average consumers, but it underpins the business models of an array of virtualised coaching tools such as Training Peaks or Trainerize, and of course also aids the medical study efforts of wearables vendors (such as Apple’s Heart study). This data also helps in a range of other areas – Strava, for instance, can use its dataset to assist with urban planning efforts in a data-driven world.

Of course, for software to fulfil its pipeline function it requires hardware capable of acting as the drill. Wearables can fulfil this role, both within sports but also in all-day health tracking. The tracking functionalities of wrist-worn wearables are expected to be improved due to developments in sensor and battery technology. As consumers become more health conscious, and the reasons for owning a wearable become more compelling, then the potential wealth of data could inform a variety of industries, from sports and health clubs, to insurance and medical studies. GDPR and ethical use of data will pose a barrier to these industries, meaning that vendors will need to provide a persuasive reason for consumers to part with their data.

A Wrist-worn Coach

In terms of software, the market is ready to dive into the sports tracking of the future. There remains, however, a bottle neck in terms of the take-up of wearable devices, which have not yet made it into mass market status. In 2018, wearables saw 3% population penetration, compared to 53% for smartphones. For consumers to willingly wear a data-mining item that allows for a deep engagement with sporting and health metrics, the wearable must fulfil a consumer function that other personal electronics devices cannot. Software again comes to the fore here, as it not only acts as a data pipeline from consumer to business, but also enables a service industry that leverages an individual’s data to provide insight and coaching. Some of these insights require a human on the other end of the pipeline to interpret – for instance, a personal trainer or coach who understands heart rate variability and its implication on sporting performance – but other insights, such as hydration, nutrition, or sleep can become automated. With health and fitness trends driving uptake of devices, wearables may soon become a wrist-worn coach that helps to improve athletic performance and stimulate good health habits.

What Next for Technology in Fitness?

The wrist-worn wearable, however, can only do so much. As biomechanical feedback becomes the norm, the wearable will need to be augmented by an expansive ecosystem of devices and sensors, from anklets or connected trainers that provide running feedback, to muscle bands that track the efficacy of a squat or deadlift, through to swimming gloves that assess how well the swimmer is pulling themselves through the water. Other technological trends are likely to have just as much of an impact on fitness technology as these sports-specific devices. Sports headphones, for example, accounted for 14% of headphone sales in 2018 and are expected to enjoy significant growth through to 2023. With ‘hearable’ features becoming more prevalent, any safety concerns around listening to music while cycling or running are removed, while the integration of virtual assistants and voice control will allow for auditory coaching feedback. Extended Reality (XR) trends will also affect fitness technology, with swimming in particular benefitting from line-of-sight live metrics that the wearable cannot provide, or cyclists using head-up displays embedded within their glasses.

As sports and health tracking becomes ever more refined, the wearable will begin to untether itself from the smartphone, becoming a product worth owning in and of itself. Futuresource expects software to continue to play an essential role within the user ecosystem and, while vendors and manufacturers will seek to vertically integrate their products to create a semi-walled garden, consumer choice will reign. The ‘digital fitness wave’ is still gathering momentum and has yet to reach its peak. Futuresource believes that the wearable will be one product that will benefit from being caught in its wake.

Date Published:

Stephen Mears

About the author

Stephen Mears

Stephen Mears is a Market Analyst at Futuresource Consulting, and is responsible for researching and reporting on key technology and market trends across the wearables, smartphone, and Extended Reality (XR) market. Alongside this, Stephen is also heavily involved in Futuresource’s retail distribution tracking service, assessing the retail landscape for consumer electronics products across major global markets.

Stephen joined Futuresource in 2018 after graduating from the University of Warwick with a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. He is currently pursuing a part-time, distance Masters of Arts (MA) in International Relations & Contemporary War with King’s College, London.

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