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Wearable tech: Trend or fad?

Before the advent of Fitbits and smartwatches, most of us probably thought of a fitness tracker as a clunky device that clipped to your belt and counted your steps. Helpful? Sure. Accurate? Maybe.

Since then, wearable technology has exploded as an industry. Fitbit reported $506 million in revenue for the third quarter of 2016 alone, and Forbes estimates the entire wearable sector could be worth $34 billion by 2020. As with any young technology, there have been missteps, but experts say these devices are here to stay.

“The standard devices out now have moved beyond novelty into more mainstream acceptability,” says Albert Titus, professor and chair of biomedical engineering at the University at Buffalo. “There is still quite a bit of space where the market can grow. And as functionality goes up and cost comes down, more people will use them.”

Titus says the growth of wearable tech can be traced to our ability to miniaturize technology — advancements you can easily see when comparing the phones and laptops of today with those from just a decade ago. With that innovation has come a desire to interact with our devices and the world around us in new ways, ushering in wearable technology.

Today’s most popular wearables are fitness trackers by brands like Fitbit, Garmin and Samsung. Depending on a device’s specific functionality, they can help users maintain a healthy lifestyle by tracking their steps, calorie intake, heart rate and sleep cycle.

“They encourage you to move more,” Titus says. “You can also upload your data and challenge your friends, so there’s that motivation to get you and your friends moving.”

In addition to wellness capabilities, smartwatches add an array of apps, allowing users to play games, listen to music, use GPS, set reminders and connect to their smartphone. Some are even waterproof. But, the price tag remains relatively steep at about $270 for an Apple Watch and $200-400 for Android.

Over the next decade or so, Titus predicts the next evolution of wearable tech will move beyond wrist-worn devices to smart textiles and clothing, already in the works. Instead of having to remember to strap on a wristwatch, a sensor-laden shirt would track your steps — and then some. Titus describes clothing that can change patterns or colors, or devices that measure blood pressure, heart rhythms (similar to an electrocardiogram) and other medical information over days or weeks to help doctors diagnose patients.

“There’s more that’s going to go on with wearables to turn them into diagnostic devices, doing [tests] you used to have to go into a hospital or clinic for,” he says. “Those are very much under development.”

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