Trend alert: Wearable devices are about to take off

It's time to face a new trend: Many vendors are working on wearable devices, and analysts predict a sales boom on the horizon.

Wearable devices have been getting a lot of attention lately, and many vendors -- including some big names, such as Google -- are throwing their hats into the wearable computing ring.

Until recently, wearable computing devices have garnered the most attention from the fitness and medical worlds, but the sands are shifting. Google is working on Google Glass, and other big-name vendors are developing wearables -- such as smartwatches and other devices users can wear on their bodies -- that could end up in the enterprise. IT may encounter these devices in the coming years, so here's a quick overview of which wearable devices could gain popularity in the near future.

Wearable devices are here

There are already some wearable devices on the market. Fitbit Flex is a band that straps around the user's wrist and tracks how many steps he takes, the distance he travels and how many calories he burns. Flex even measures sleep cycles, then communicates that information to the wearer's smartphone. A lot of fitness wearables work the same way, acting as satellites to more powerful devices.

Medical wearables use many of the same technologies as Fitbit Flex but serve a different purpose. They can monitor patients post-hospitalization, track the movements of elderly patients and allow patients to send information wirelessly to their doctors, including vital signs, glucose levels and ECG readings.

There has also been a lot of scuttlebutt about Google Glass, a tiny computer with an even tinier display that hangs in the wearer's peripheral field of vision with a design similar to a pair of glasses. According to Google, users can snap pictures, shoot videos, find directions, ask questions, translate phrases and send messages -- all by talking to the glasses. Many of these features rely on the smartglasses being paired with a smartphone or tablet via Bluetooth. Still, there are a lot of unknowns about exactly how Google Glass will work.

Smartwatches are also receiving their fair share of attention right now, thanks in part to Pebble, which used crowdfunding to collect more than $10 million in investments and 85,000 watch orders. Pebble works with the user's smartphone via Bluetooth to provide a customizable display center on his wrist. The user can control music, receive vibrating alerts, view incoming caller IDs, monitor running and cycling progress, and of course, tell the time.

What's on the wearable horizon?

Other companies are jumping on the wearable computing bandwagon, including Apple, Samsung, LG and Microsoft, all of which are reportedly working on their own wearable designs. There are few specifics known about the capabilities of these devices, but consumers can expect fierce competition, a fair amount of innovation and a lot of hype.

Analysts project a boom in the sales of wearables but do not agree on the extent of those sales. For example, IMS Research predicts that wearable device sales will climb from 14 million devices sold in 2011 to 170 million in 2016. On the other hand, BI Intelligence projects 100 million in annual sales in 2014 with a climb to 300 million in 2018. ABI Research anticipates 485 million devices sold in 2018.

No matter how you slice it, wearables are on the rise, which means they could be on their way to the enterprise.

In part two of this series, learn about how wearable devices may affect the enterprise.

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