TIME Big Picture

Where Wearable Health Gadgets Are Headed

fitbit
A person wearing a Fitbit fitness band types on a laptop Getty Images

Every once in a while, I’m shown a tech product and I can’t figure out why it was created. One great example of this was a two-handed mouse I was shown at large R&D-based company many years ago.

I was asked to review it to see if they should bring it to market. After trying to use it and viewing the complicated things you had to do to make it work, I told them it would never succeed. However, the engineer behind it was convinced he had created the next great mouse and was determined to try and get it to market. Thankfully, the management at this company killed it, as it would have been a complete failure and provided no real value to any customer. However, the technology was available to create it and this engineer did it because he could.

In the world of tech, most successful products address serious needs that people have. This is very much the case behind the current movement to create all types of wearable devices designed to make people healthier.

Folks behind products like the Jawbone Up, Nike Fuel, Fitbit and others have solid backgrounds in exercise and exercise science. They wanted to create stylish wearable products that could be used to monitor steps, count calories and track various other fitness metrics. Other products such as ones from iHealth, which has created a digital blood pressure device and a blood glucose testing kit that are tied to smartphones, were designed by people close to the health industry who saw a need to create products that could utilize digital technology to power new health monitoring tools.

At a personal level, I’m pleased that these folks are utilizing key technologies like accelerometers, sensors, Bluetooth low-energy radios and new types of semiconductors to create products that aim to impact people’s health. Readers of this column may remember that two years ago I suffered a heart attack and had a triple bypass. As you can imagine, this provided a serious wake up call to me about taking better care of myself. Since then, my Nike Fuelband has been my 24-hour wearable companion: I check its step-monitoring readout religiously to make sure I get the 10,000 steps in each day that my doctor has required of me as part of my recovery regimen.

While I would like to think that these tech folks are doing it for the altruistic reasons, the bottom line is that there is a lot of money to be made in health-related wearables. The folks from IHS published a good report last year on the market for wearables, which are mostly driven by health-related apps.

Most researchers that track this market believe that the wearable health market will represent at least $2 billion in revenue worldwide by 2018. In many developed countries around the world, people are becoming much more health conscious. Reports seem to come out daily, talking about the good or bad effects some foods have on our lives. And more and more, we hear that we need to exercise to either maintain our health or to improve it.

So a combination of the right technology becoming available and an increased awareness for better health has created this groundswell of health-related wearable devices and digital monitoring tools designed to help people have healthier lives. But there is another major reason that we are seeing more and more health-related wearables and digital monitoring products come to market now. This is driven by most healthcare providers and is one of their major initiatives: In simple terms, it’s cheaper to keep a person healthy than to cover their costs in the hospital when they’re sick.

Almost all the major health care providers have created web sites with all types of information about managing one’s health. These sites have information and programs for cancer patients, diabetics, and many other health issues that help people better manage these diseases. Health insurers are also really getting behind the various digital monitoring tools and health wearables, too, viewing them as vital tools that can help their customers stay healthier and keep them out of the hospital as much as possible.

Interestingly, as I talk to many of the executives of these health-related wearable companies, many of them claim to be on a mission. Yes, they admit there is money to be made, but most I speak with are serious about giving people the technology to help them keep themselves healthy. In fact, in at least two cases, the executives I have talked to have special funds they personally set aside to donate to major health causes as part of their personal commitment to using technology to make people healthier.

While there is some chatter about the market for wearable technology not being a sustainable one, I suspect that it will stay on track to eventually become integrated into everyday objects such as watches, hats and even clothes, becoming part of a broader trend called “self-health monitoring.” This trend basically says that people will want to have more and more information about calories the number of calories they’ve burned, the number of steps they’ve steps taken, their pulse and other metrics. Thanks to these new technologies, this data would be available to them in a variety of ways.

Of course, not everyone may want to know these health-related data points, but the research shows that at least one-fourth of U.S. adults have these types of health-related wearable monitoring devices on their personal radars. The fact that this market is growing around 20% or more each year suggests that we could continue to see growth for at least another three years. As these devices become part of our wardrobes, they could eventually fade into the background while still providing health-related info that many people may need to stay motivated. This is the goal that the tech world has embraced wholeheartedly, providing more and better tools for this purpose.

Bajarin is the president of Creative Strategies Inc., a technology industry analysis and market-intelligence firm in Silicon Valley. He contributes to Big Picture, an opinion column that appears every week on TIME Tech.

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