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Wearables Poised to Explode
The Pentagon recently announced that it is teaming up with major technological organizations and universities to develop high-tech sensory gear for soldiers in order to improve their weapons and monitor their health.
Additionally, the Obama administration will award
a Manufacturing Innovation Institute for Flexible Hybrid
Electronics to a consortium of 162 companies, universities, and
non-profits, led by the Flex Tech Alliance. Based in San Jose, the
Flexible Hybrid Electronics Manufacturing Innovation Hub is
the seventh of nine such manufacturing institutes launched by this administration,
and the fifth of six manufacturing institutes led by the Department of Defense.
These moves are designed to give a boost to American manufacturing, which hit
a slump in the early part of this century. But recovery is on the way — according
to the Department of Defense, 900,000 new manufacturing jobs have been created
since Feb. 2010. By working with Silicon Valley, the Pentagon hopes to hasten the
military’s technology development cycles as well as generate commercial opportunities for the technologies developed at the institute.
The list of participating organizations and institutions reads like a veritable
Who’s Who of electronics and semiconductor organizations — for example: Apple,
Boeing, Hewlett Packard, General Motors, and Motorola. Participating research
universities include Harvard, Stanford, UC Berkeley, and MIT. These partnerships,
says the DoD, represent “the next chapter in the long-standing public-private part-
nerships between the Pentagon and tech community.”
“Flexible hybrid electronics manufacturing” is the production of electronics and
sensors packaging through new techniques in electronic device handling and high
precision printing on flexible, stretchable substrates. Potential products include
wearable devices for fitness and medical health monitoring (such as Fitbit and the
Apple Watch) as well as military solutions for the warfighter (such as the Land
Warrior Integrated Soldier System utilized by the U.S. Army).
Apple has entered the wearables market with the Apple Watch. According to the
International Data Corp., Apple is lagging just behind Fitbit after shipping 3.6 million
Apple Watches in the second quarter of 2015; Fitbit shipped 4. 4 million units. Total shipment volume is up 223.2 percent from Q2 of 2014. Fitbit only ships basic units —“basic”
devices don’t run third-party apps, typical of most fitness trackers. Meanwhile, Apple
is expected to launch an improved Google Glass-like product. Samsung could surprise
everyone, however, if its Gear line of smart watches really takes off.
“Hearables” could also be on the horizon — discreet devices that fit in the ear and track
oxygen levels, blood flow, and body temperature, and provide vocal feedback to the user.
Apple could be gearing up for a major hearables announcement in light of last year’s $3 billion acquisition of headphone maker Beats Electronic. Not to be outdone, Intel has partnered
with rapper 50 Cent to develop smart earbuds that play music and track the user’s heart rate.
Research predicts that the wearable technology market could grow to $80 billion by
2020. The companies that want to stay at the head of the pack will need to create devices
that are simple to use and attractive to wear.