In 2015, the same year, Apple launched its smartwatch, a Kickstarter campaign launched for a very different kind of wearable device: a wellness tracking ring called Oura.
Seven years later, the Apple Watch is the most popular wearable device while other similar products from Google and Samsung too dominate the wearable market. But something notable is afoot: products like Oura, which sometimes look and perform markedly differently than more traditional wearables, are gaining popularity.
The Oura Ring ($399) has seen a surge in sales during the pandemic and has seen continued momentum this holiday season, CEO Tom Hale told CNN Business. It provides sleep tracking data without the need to wear a smartwatch to bed and can detect subtle changes in body temperature. It also has no screen. Earlier this year, the company announced that it had received a valuation of $2.55 billion and has since established partnerships with Gucci, Strava and other brands.
The Ring is one of a small but increasingly buzzing group of alternative wearables that people are turning to right now, including a screenless fitness band tracker and headphones that don’t need to be put in the ear. Some of the demand stems from changes during the pandemic, as consumer interest in health monitoring has increased. People have turned to activity trackers, smartwatches and other devices to keep tabs on their steps, vital stats and more. Many were also willing to experiment with different form factors, as long as they provided accurate data and were still comfortable – a trend that continues today.
“The funny thing is that most of these devices have been around for a while but have slowly made a name for themselves over the past few quarters,” said Ramon Llamas, research director at IDC Research. “But word of mouth takes time to spread.”
Devices can also exploit the desire to enjoy the benefits of wearable trackers without necessarily having a screen or device on their body at all times.
Take the WHOOP band, a screenless health tracker that first came out in 2015. It focuses very specifically on workout recovery, rest time, training, and coaching. Founder and CEO Will Ahmed told CNN Business that this year’s Cyber Monday was his biggest selling day ever.
“Not so long ago, people only wore a health monitor if something was wrong. Now we see people taking a much more proactive approach to their health,” he said. “This trend has continued even as the pandemic subsides.”
Like Oura, the WHOOP is a subscription-based device targeting a more specialized audience. It’s expensive, too: $480, including a two-year subscription plan.
“The challenge is that most of these devices are competing for single-digit market share behind the market leaders, [such as Apple and Samsung]”, said Lamas. “That’s why it’s essential to have a well-differentiated segment that you can serve almost exclusively. Companies like WHOOP have succeeded because they focus so well on athlete rest and recovery. , and these are key factors for many athletes today.
Ahmed said the product is evolving to support this growing interest in health by adding new features related to pregnancy, stress and more in-depth biometric monitoring. In August, WHOOP announced that it had raised $200 million in a funding round led by SoftBank Vision Fund 2, giving the company a valuation of $3.6 billion.
Health trackers also continue to take on new shapes and sizes, including some that don’t need to be worn at all. In September, Amazon introduced a non-wearable sleep tracking monitor, Halo Rise, which sits on a bedside table and tracks breathing patterns while the user sleeps. Meanwhile, some companies like Withings allow users to slip sensors under the mattress to collect sleep data.
There is also a shift in demand for what is arguably one of the original wearables: headphones.
Bone conduction headphones, which like the Oura have been around for years, are also “going through a while,” according to Steve Konig, head of the Consumer Electronics Association’s research department. Rather than sitting inside or above the ear canal, bone conduction headphones sit in front of the ear, leaving it uncovered. They transmit sound along the user’s bones and jaw to the ears rather than directly into the ear canal. The headphones also feature a soft band that goes behind the upper neck to hold it in place and minimize sound distortion.
At the same time, the exposed ear allows users to pick up sounds and the environment around them, which is crucial for safety during activities such as biking or jogging. Unlike headphones, there’s also less worry about them coming out of your ears.
Shokz ($125) pioneered bone conduction headphones, but the market has since expanded with other brands offering similar designs. Open-back headphones – such as those made by Sony and Bose – feature a similar design that leaves the ear canals completely open so the user can hear outside noise. But some audiophiles say the sound quality of bone conduction headphones and open-back headphones is less than stellar.
“Over the past 10 years, audio innovation in general has exploded due to the introduction of new features, such as noise cancellation technology, built-in wireless capabilities and more,” Konig said. “People now own multiple pairs of personal listening products for different locations and use cases; some leave them in the office, others prefer the bigger and beefier ones on planes. They also make a great holiday gift because, in the grand scheme of gifts, they’re pretty reasonable to buy.
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