Wearable electronics are now making a fashion statement with the recent IFA 2014 electronics show in Berlin featuring stylish smartwatches.
With the introduction of more fashion-forward designs at the European consumer electronics show, smartwatch makers hope to eventually bring wearable products into the mainstream by improving their appearance as well as usability, which they hope to achieve by using flexible displays.
Rapid growth is expected for the display panel market for all types of wearable electronic items in the coming years. From a projected $300 million this year, industry revenue will climb more than 80 percent annually for at least four more years as high resolution and colour displays are increasingly adopted in devices, going up to an estimated $22.7 billion by 2023. In terms of shipments, the market will surge to 800 million units in 2023, up from 54 million in 2014.
Samsung, LG, Sony, Asus and Motorola introduced proprietary offerings at the IFA to get a head start on Apple, which unveiled its own smartwatches a few days later after the show.
Samsung introduced the Gear S smartwatch, featuring a curved screen and a 2-inch AMOLED flexible display large enough to accommodate a keyboard for the smartwatch. Samsung Gear S employs Samsung’s Tizen operating system.
LG’s wearable innovation was the G Watch R featuring a completely circular screen incorporating a 1.3-inch diameter display with 57 percent more area than a square screen; sleek P-AMOLED panel less than 0.6mm thick and 320 x 320 resolution, 100 percent colour gamut, 300-nits peak luminance and unlimited contrast ratio, typical of an OLED display.
Motorola’s Moto 360 also comes with an attractive round screen. Both the LG and Motorola models are powered by Android Wear as extensions of the Android smartwatch ecosystem.
The highly anticipated Apple Watch expected at the beginning of 2015 will feature a square display and employ a flexible Retina display.
Developments in flexible displays have opened up new opportunities for wearable devices, enabling the kind of design innovations seen in the latest group of smartwatch products at IFA.
Sweta Dash, senior director for research and display at IHS explains that wearables are best viewed as functional fashion accessories rather than as electronic goods. She observes that since the fashion accessory market is determined by design rather than simple function, wearable products such as smartwatches must be adaptable to various forms including squares, circles or even ovals.
According to Dash, displays used in wearables need three essential elements including outdoor visibility, low power consumption and flexibility in form factor and design. New forms of display such as stretchable panels that are expected in the near future, can meet even more demanding designs in wearables, creating possibilities for exotic shapes and forms.
Wearables of the future will feature efficient, low-power flexible displays with longer battery lives that enable increased functionality in smaller form factors. OLED, a self-emissive display technology with no backlight, excellent flexibility, faster response time and great video quality is expected to dominate the wearable display market with improved capability and reduced costs.
Dash expects most of the next wave of wearable products to come from smartwatch computing with applications in gaming, infotainment and health monitoring.
The flipside to the thriving wearables technology market is that most current products including smartwatches and smartglasses from Google and others are not completely ready for mainstream consumer adoption. The recently introduced smartwatches across all brands are expensive, presenting a challenge to universal acceptance. Consumers are also waiting to see a clear value proposition is in these products before they fully accept the design and available applications.
IHS believes that wearable devices will need to balance price, performance, form factor and usability aspects to reach the consumer mainstream market – till this position is achieved, actual wearable products such as smartwatches will struggle to gain traction in the market.