Wearable electronics are going from geek to chic, as new smartwatches from the likes of Apple and Samsung have set a new standard for technological bling.
At IFA 2014 in Berlin last month, the European consumer electronics show highlighted new smartwatches meant to entice consumers with more fashion-forward designs. Smartwatch makers hope to eventually legitimize wearable products as a category by improving their usability, and the secret sauce in this effort is an upgrade in design centered on the use of flexible displays.
The display panel market for all types of wearable electronic items is forecast to enjoy very rapid growth in the years to come. 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 color displays are increasingly adopted in devices. By 2023, the market will be worth some $22.7 billion, as shown in the attached figure.
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 were on hand at IFA to introduce proprietary offerings—ostensibly to get a head start on Apple, which unveiled its own smartwatches a few days later after the show, in which it does not participate.
Samsung introduced the Gear S smart watch, which features a curved screen and a 2-inch super active-matrix organic light-emitting diode (AMOLED) flexible display that is large enough to accommodate a keyboard for the smartwatch.
For its part, LG introduced the G Watch R that flaunts a completely circular screen. With a 1.3-inch diameter, this round display has 57 percent more area than a square screen. The sleek P-AMOLED panel is less than 0.6mm thick and features 320 x 320 resolution, 100-percent color gamut, 300-nits peak luminance and unlimited contrast ratio, typical of an organic light-emitting diode (OLED) display.
LG Display recently started mass production of its revolutionary circular plastic P-OLED screen, made possible by the company’s development of a circular mask and new production processes that improve deposition efficiency and employ highly precise laser cutting. LG Display’s power-save mode, which enables the screen to retain its resolution without a power supply, has also contributed to longer battery life for the watch.
Like the G Watch R, 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. Meanwhile, the Samsung Gear S employs Samsung’s Tizen operating system.
After months of rumors, Apple finally introduced the Apple Watch—fashionably late but highly anticipated. Set to be available at the beginning of 2015 with a starting price of $349, Apple Watch will use a square display. Detailed specs about the display are still not available, but the wearable timepieces will employ a flexible Retina display. According to Apple, the display is “not just a display but the focal point of the whole experience.” Its advertised flexibility, high-energy efficiency and very-high contrast mean it likely will use an OLED display.
And just like the iPhone, Apple Watch will have the solid advantage of application support from its entrenched ecosystem fully behind the product.
Imperatives for wearable displays
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.
“Wearables are best viewed as functional fashion accessories rather than as electronic goods,” said Sweta Dash, senior director for research and display at IHS. But because the fashion accessory market is determined by design rather than by simple function, wearable products such as smartwatches must be adaptable to various forms including squares, circles or even ovals.”
Displays used in wearables need three essential elements, Dash noted. These include outdoor visibility, low power consumption and flexibility in form factor and design. New forms of display, such as stretchable panels that are expected to come in the near future, can meet even more demanding designs in wearables, creating possibilities for exotic shapes and forms.
Also of significance in future wearables will be efficient, low-power flexible displays with longer battery lives that enable increased functionality in smaller form factors. Expected to dominate the wearable display market with improved capability and reduced costs is OLED, a self-emissive display technology with no backlight, excellent flexibility, faster response time and great video quality.
Most of the next wave of wearable products will come from smartwatch computing, Dash remarked. This field of wearable technology will be diverse, ranging from gaming, to infotainment, to health monitoring.
On the downside, most current products—including smartwatches and smartglasses from Google and others—are not completely ready for mainstream consumer adoption. The smartwatch models shown at IFA and Apple’s offerings alike are all expensive and lack the kind of affordable pricing to make them universally appealing. Moreover, a clear value proposition is needed before consumers fully accept the design and available applications provided by these new timepieces to replace the trusty traditional watches of old.
Wearable devices will need to strike the correct combination of price, performance, form factor and usability to reach the consumer mainstream market, IHS believes. Until then, actual wearable products like smartwatches may take longer to gain traction before the market can take off.
These findings can be found in the Displays research service of IHS Technology.