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Wearable Tech

Wearable device shipments predicted to surge 173% this year

Prepare for an "emerging battleground" between the Apple Watch and Android Wear devices, says market researcher IDC.

Shipments of wearable devices are expected to surge. Sarah Tew/CNET

Smartwatches and fitness bands are finally catching the public's eye, at least according to industry predictions.

An estimated 72.1 million wearable devices are forecast to ship in 2015, market researcher IDC said Thursday. If so, that number would be a bounce of 173 percent from the 26.4 million wearables that shipped last year. Looking further ahead, IDC predicts a compound annual growth rate of 42.6 percent over the next five years, triggering a total of 155.7 million wearables shipping in 2019.

Demand for wearable devices -- which includes smartwatches, fitness bands and smart eyewear -- got off to a slow start. But the market has grown with the release of a more diverse range of products. The Apple Watch has also led to greater interest in and awareness of wearable devices. But another strong lure has been lower prices, IDC said in report released earlier this month. More than 40 percent of the wearable devices on the market are now priced under $100, according to Jitesh Ubrani, senior research analyst for IDC Worldwide Mobile Device Trackers.

"The demand for basic wearables, those that do not run third party apps, has been absolutely astounding," Ubrani said. "Vendors like Fitbit and Xiaomi have helped propel the market with their sub-$100 bands, and IDC expects this momentum will continue throughout 2015."

Fitbit, coincidentally, began trading Thursday on the New York Stock Exchange. By midday, the shares had risen 50 percent.

Smart wearables, which IDC defines as those capable of running third-party apps, are expected to lead the market next year. Ubrani pointed to smart wearables such as the Apple Watch and Microsoft's Hololens eyewear as "indicative of an upcoming change in computing." Smart wearables will open up more opportunities for vendors, app developers and accessory makers, according to Ubrani.

The Apple Watch comes with a basic lineup of apps but it will increasingly depend on third-party apps to expand its functionality, especially in the area of health and fitness. The Watch also accepts bands designed by third-party manufacturers so that consumers aren't limited to Apple's own bands.

Designed as smart 3D eyewear, Microsoft's Hololens is its own Windows 10 computer that can project holographic images with which you can interact. Hololens taps into the budding field of augmented reality, which integrates virtual objects into the "real world." Though Microsoft has demoed Hololens, most recently at its E3 conference this week, the company has yet to set a price or release date for the product. If and when Hololens does officially hit the market, Microsoft will need third-party developers to create augmented reality apps to help the device catch on with consumers.

Yet another challenge for wearable device makers lies ahead as they strive to improve their products in an attempt to outpace the competition.

"Growth in the smart wearables market points to an emerging battleground among competing platforms," IDC research manager Ramon Llamas said in a statement. "Android Wear, [Samsung's] Tizen and [Apple's] WatchOS are moving ahead with improved user interfaces, user experiences and applications. These will raise the expectations of what a smart wearable can do, and each platform is vying for best-in-class status. We're not there yet, but we're seeing the building blocks of what is to come."