At the International CES expo in Las Vegas kicking off this week, wearable devices — smartwatches, fitness trackers and other gadgets with embedded sensors — will be competing for more floor space at the annual consumer technology exhibit.
Out of more than 3,000 groups, about 585 registered with products in the wearables category, according to the CES directory. Smartwatch exhibits alone are expected to cover almost 2,000 square feet of space at the show, up from 900 square feet last year, according to the Consumer Electronics Association, the Arlington, Va.-based trade group that organizes CES.
A handful of Washington-area start-ups are among them. Of the 45 local groups exhibiting — down from 55 last year — about 11 plan to showcase wearable technology. They span from a watchlike device that monitors sun intake to jewelry that buzzes when wearers receive notifications on their smartphones.
The appetite for these gadgets has been growing steadily. Shipments of wearable gear are estimated to exceed 19 million units in 2014, according to a report from International Data Corp., and could reach nearly 112 million units by 2018. In the first quarter of 2014, San Francisco technology company Fitbit dominated the wristband market, accounting for about 50 percent of the total 2.7 million units sold, according to a report from research firm Canalys. But other big names are entering the fray.
In September, Apple unveiled its Apple Watch, a wristwatch that is supposed to run many popular iPhone apps. Slated for public release in early 2015, it can receive calls, texts and e-mails, and track the wearer’s fitness, among other features. The same month, Intel announced plans to sell a chunky bracelet for women, inlaid with semiprecious stones, called MICA — My Intelligent Communication Accessory — each equipped with a screen that can show meeting alerts, texts and other notifications.
Still, in the relatively new market for wearables, there is room for start-ups to compete with technology giants, said IDC analyst Ramon Llamas, research manager for mobile phones. “If we run the clock back to 2011, nobody had heard of companies like, say, Fitbit.”
Rona Bunn is founder of Upper Marlboro, Md.-based BlueJewelz, one such start-up making its debut at CES.
Bunn’s six-person team plans to showcase small, sterling silver pendants — a heart-shaped locket, for instance — that contain removable notification chips that can vibrate when the wearer receives an important text or other notifications.
Bunn said she hopes to sell BlueJewelz pendants — which are currently in the prototype phase — for anywhere between $70 and $300, significantly less than Intel’s MICA, which goes for $495 online.
Bunn, an engineer, founded the company because she was “being blamed by my family for not being more attentive,” she said. “I’m busy all day. I’m in meetings all day. I can’t really pull out my phone. . . . I had a kid who was a teenager and had the [car] keys for the first time, and I was not available when he needed it.”
SunFriend Corp., based in College Park, Md., sells waterproof, watchlike devices that monitor the wearer’s sun intake and UV exposure. The devices, sold online through Amazon.com for about $50, flash when wearers have reached the maximum healthy level of sun exposure and when they risk skin damage. (Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Karin Edgett, SunFriend chief executive, was previously president of District-based Edge Advertising, which she sold a few years ago. This is her first trip to CES.
Vorbeck Materials, based in Jessup, Md., manufactures and sells components that other businesses can use to produce wearable technology. Vorbeck specializes in graphene, a material that is one atom thick; the company produces graphene-based inserts that can monitor heart rate, temperature and other metrics.
The company’s president, John Lettow, declined to share the names of Vorbeck’s business customers, but he said the company has been working with wearable technology for two to three years. “We’ve really been working to refine technology for true mass production in the apparel industry,” he said. Instead of a “T-shirt that can monitor all kinds of things but costs $300,” Vorbeck aims to help businesses reduce the price to, say, $30 or $40.
At CES, Vorbeck plans to demonstrate a full-body suit designed for race-car drivers, embedded with monitors for heart and other muscle activity, as well as a prototype of a race car built with graphene nanotechnology, featuring tire-wear sensors and acoustic sensors that detect maintenance issues, among other features.
This is the first time Vorbeck will focus much of its exhibit on wearable technology, Lettow said — its other products include technology to improve energy storage, and anti-theft sensors for packages. Wearable technology is poised to “change the way we interact with electronics,” Lettow said. “The trick is to find out what the best applications and implementations of it are.”
Despite their popularity at CES and other trade shows, wearables may not take off as quickly as some are expecting, Llamas said — especially since wearable devices often rely on smartphone or tablet apps to aggregate the information they are collecting or relaying. For now, wearables tend to be luxury devices that enthusiasts buy once they already have personal computers, smartphones and tablets, he said.