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Wearable Tech Eclipses 3D Printers as the Coming Electronics Trend

At this year's HKTDC Hong Kong Electronics Fair (Spring Edition), wearable tech was tipped to make the leap from early adopters to mass market, while 3D-printers were seen as languishing, with their potential yet to come to fruition.

Photo: Widely shown: The smartphone smart drone.
Widely shown: The smartphone smart drone.
Photo: Widely shown: The smartphone smart drone.
Widely shown: The smartphone smart drone.

Wearable technology is increasingly being woven into the fabric of consumers' lives – both literally and metaphorically. Miniature computers can now be worn on the wrist, in clothes or embedded in shoes, all plugging users into the wider digital universe. Despite their relatively recent arrival on the electronics scene, such items are rapidly taking centre stage in the minds of both buyers and manufacturers – this, at least, was clearly evident at the recent HKTDC Hong Kong Electronics Fair (Spring Edition).

In truth, the event represents two expos for the price of one. The Hong Kong Trade Development Council (HKTDC) Hong Kong Electronics Fair, as well as the HKTDC International ICT Expo, were both held simultaneously at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre.  One of the undoubted highlights of the twin shows was the Wearable Electronics Zone. This featured 40 exhibitors showcasing a bewildering array of devices, either already available on the market or just about to launch.

Another must-visit section was the Connected Home Zone, which introduced applications related to the Internet of Things (IoT), an area of huge growth and development. Meanwhile, the Hall of Fame welcomed back some of the electronic world's biggest hitters, including Hyundai, Ford and Intel.

Making its long-awaited show debut this year was Microsoft. The tech giant chose the event to highlight a number of its more innovative products, notably the Microsoft Band, a device intended to assist people in their pursuit of "wellness". This wearable units tracks heart rate, steps, calorie burn and sleep quality – while providing email previews and calendar alerts. Also making an appearance were the company's app-enabled accessories, including home security monitoring kits and the GoPro Channel app for games.

Aside from cutting-edge products and a large number of clearly inspired tech-nerds, a wealth of seminars and forums also shed light on the very latest from the electronics industry. A Wearable Electronics are in Vogue presentation by Wayne Leung, Managing Director of Hong Kong-based Faze, proved one of the highlights here.

Addressing the revolutionary impact of the Apple Watch, he acknowledged its positioning as most high profile wearable in the market, believing it would stimulate sales in much the same way as the iPhone. He said: "The Apple Watch will be very influential and create a huge market for accessories, such as portable charging stations, watch straps and stuff we can't even imagine yet.

"There are so many other things to develop for smart watches and it comes at a time when Google Glass is dead. It's dead, right? If I go to the restroom wearing a pair, it looks weird and nerdy. It's obtrusive, not like smart clothing and other wearables.

"More positively, Ralph Lauren is coming up with smart Polo shirts – The Polo Tech Shirt. This will merge biometrics and the needs of an active lifestyle to improve performance and personal fitness."

"Other smart wearables are also being put in shoes, enabling us to know how many steps we are taking a day, while an Indian company is putting in GPS functions that tell us to go right or left when we are looking for a location. For wearables in general, the sky's the limit."

Leung suggested that, unlike the PDA, for example, where there was a considerable time lag between the early adopters signing up and the majority following suit, this won't happen with wearables. Rather, the bridge between early adopters and mass adoption will be crossed quickly, partly because wearables are so non-intrusive, but also because they mesh well with other leading trends, such as Big Data and wellness.

Issues discussed at the seminar included the likely impact of the launch of the Apple Watch on fitness bands, such as Fitbit and Pebble. One report, courtesy of Canalys, a Singapore-based industry analyst, suggested that the watch will drive a 129% year-on-year growth in the shipments of wearable bands and reach 43.2 million units by 2016, inevitably creating significant disruption in the fitness band market. As a result, fitness bands were widely expected to start looking and acting more like smart watches. In the meantime, it is expected that, in order to compete, fitness bands will come down in price.

One attendee impressed by the findings of the seminar was Daniel Michalsk, a Product Development Manager and Buyer at Goclever, a Poland-based electronics manufacturer. His company conducts research and development throughout Europe, while its manufacturing base is in Shenzhen. The company's business strategy is to stay ahead of the game, producing new electronics devices as demand emerges. Commenting on his 2015 priority, he said: "This year it's definitely wearables."

His sentiment was borne out by statistics. Despite a slight dip in sales in 2014 compared with the previous year, the United States information technology research and advisory firm, Gartner, believes wearables are now very much in the ascendant. In particular, it sees smart garments as having the greatest potential for growth, given the category has emerged from its testing phase and is now available to athletes and teams, guaranteeing a trickle-down effect. As such, Gartner predicts smart garment shipments will soar from 0.1 million units in 2014 to 26 million units in 2016.

Photo: 3-Delicious: Printed chocolate.
3-Delicious: Printed chocolate.
Photo: 3-Delicious: Printed chocolate.
3-Delicious: Printed chocolate.
Photo: Its time is now: The smart watch.
Its time is now: The smart watch.
Photo: Its time is now: The smart watch.
Its time is now: The smart watch.

Aside from wearables, action cameras were everywhere at the Fair. Designed to be attachable to cars, bikes, helmets, surfboards and more, these tough – but simple – lenses capture the world from a fish-eye perspective and provide a dramatic point-of-view for filming. Athletes, filmmakers and Facebook posters are particularly keen on them, with sales now approaching the mass adoption level.

Of particular note was the Hewlett Packard Mini Wi-Fi Cam Ic200m, matchbox sized and stickable just about anywhere. It is, perhaps, indicative of a sure market trend when a company best known for office photocopiers and printers migrates to producing such apparently outré items.

In the Exhibitor's Showroom, the Motorola Scout 5000 from Binatone Electronics International, headquartered in Hong Kong, was also proving popular. It's designed for pet lovers, particularly dog owners, and is basically a collar crammed with technology. As well as being fitted with a tiny camera and GPS locator, it streams video to users' smartphones through an app and even lets the owners issue commands through an embedded loudspeaker.

While GoPro's Hero is clearly the action camera market leader, it was plain to see that it faces a great deal of competition, with specifications improving and niche markets, such as pet wearables, developing fast.

As for robotics, the big movers at the show were drones and vacuum cleaners, with unmanned flying devices circling overhead and autonomous cleaners roving around below. The TORUK AP11 actually combines an action camera with a flying object. Controlled either with a remote or through Wi-Fi on the smartphone, it can climb to 300 metres, speed around at 25 metres a second (around 90kph) and shoot 120-degree pictures.

Unsurprisingly, 3D printers were also well represented at the event, with a variety of offerings from various manufacturers and increasing competition with regard to specs – notably speed, resolution and tolerance. Most of the objects actually 3D rendered, however, were of the souvenir/trinket variety, with many buyers clearly expecting a little more. Although 3D printing is often described as representing the dawn of a new industrial age, the technology has yet to prove itself fully.

Despite this caveat, Belgium's Velleman VN brought some fun to the Fair with its 3D printer, which applied the principles of "additive manufacturing" or "rapid prototyping" to the process of making chocolate confections. TV stations and reporters were keen to interview the company's sales team, which has been producing and wholesaling machines for 40 years.

Responding to its popularity, one of the company's reps said: "It's a complete novelty. We've sold 12,000 of the 3D machines in six months. For Belgium, that's huge."

While audio technology for loudspeakers hasn't changed fundamentally in the past 100 years, still relying on vibrating membranes, electronic makeovers have made the old attractive again. Wandering the expo, every now and again the sounds of muted electronic bleeps and conversations were punctuated by a multi-decibel demonstration of a speaker's bass response. Mobile, one-box karaoke systems that lit up like Christmas trees, were also popular.

The big movers and shakers, though, were miniaturized Bluetooth speakers and even backpacks that doubled as sound systems. Maine-based NUU produces wireless floating speakers, which are both water- and sand-proof, making them ideal for fun in the sun. Meanwhile the company's super compact NUU Riptide has a carabineer that can clip onto practically anything.

Melding the seemingly disparate would appear to be a formula for creativity, particularly in the world of conservation. "Green" Bluetooth speakers and alarms from Shenzhen-based Zhongxinli Electronic Technology were making waves, along with the company's range of wooden power banks and phone case covers.

Stepping into the eco-friendly IT solution system zone were a host of exhibitors, notably Carbon Exchange, with its carbon footprint audits; and software such as Papercut's, which helps cut down printing costs. While perhaps not as glamorous as wearable tech or surfboard-mounted cameras, eco tech is a growing category and will inevitably continue to expand.

Photo: The 2015 electronics sector: Out with the old.
The 2015 electronics sector: Out with the old.
Photo: The 2015 electronics sector: Out with the old.
The 2015 electronics sector: Out with the old.

The 12th Hong Kong Trade Development Council (HKTDC) Hong Kong Electronics Fair and the HKTDC International ICT Expo were held at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. The 13-16 April expo welcomed nearly 3,300 exhibitors from 21 countries and regions.

Jules Quartly, Special Correspondent, Hong Kong

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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