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Mainland Prioritises Development of Elder-friendly Wearable Devices

With China's demographic shifting towards an ever-higher ratio of citizens aged 60-plus, elder-friendly wearables are seen as a key means of monitoring the health and whereabouts of this affluent, yet vulnerable, sector of contemporary society.

Photo: A digital digit: Putting ease of reading at the fingertips of the elderly.
A digital digit: Putting ease of reading at the fingertips of the elderly.
Photo: A digital digit: Putting ease of reading at the fingertips of the elderly.
A digital digit: Putting ease of reading at the fingertips of the elderly.

Across the mainland, wearable devices are this year's must-have accessories. In particular, senior wearables seem to have gained the approval of both local authorities and the general public. This has been most notable in Shenzhen, where the city has announced a major new initiative geared to developing a wearables' programme suited to the needs of its most senior citizens.

Overall, the mainland senior wearables sector is still very much in its infancy, with comparatively few products currently available. In light of this, it is believed there is huge scope for companies looking to introduce innovative products to this poorly-served market.

Figures released by the Ministry of Civil Affairs in July show that, as of the end of 2015, there were some 220 million people in China aged 60 or above, around 16.1% of the total population. As the number of people aged 60 and above continues to rise, this percentage will inevitably grow.

According to the China Report on the Development of the Silver Hair Industry, issued by the National Working Commission on Aging, China is set become the world's largest market for elderly-oriented products and services. Between 2014 and 2050, the spending power of China's senior citizens is projected to grow enormously, rising from RMB4 trillion to RMB106 trillion.

Limited Range

The term "wearables" is typically taken to refer to a range of portable smart devices – most famously the Apple Watch and Google Glass – that can actually be worn by consumers. In the elderly sector, wearables tend to be either tracking devices or fall alarms, which are most often used by seniors living on their own or suffering from some form of cognitive disorder.

Photo: An elder-friendly GPS-watch.
An elder-friendly GPS-watch.
Photo: An elder-friendly GPS-watch.
An elder-friendly GPS-watch.

According to the China Wearable Device Market Research Report, issued by the China Academy of Information and Communication Technology (CAICT), smart wristbands (including smart watches) accounted for RMB12.2 billion of the RMB12.58 billion smart wearable device market last year. While the increasing number of elderly empty nesters and seniors with dementia issues has created a clear demand for wearables, the problem of a lack of more bespoke products for the elderly sector has proved an impediment to their wider uptake.

Cao Bingliang, Vice President of the China Silver Industry Association, maintains that it is as yet early days for the wearables industry on the mainland, with wristbands and GPS tracking necklaces still dominating the sector. At present, he concedes, little research and development has been invested in developing wearables specifically targetted at the more senior market.

Currently Tmall.com, one of the mainland's most popular e-commerce platforms, carries only two varieties of senior-friendly wearables – necklaces and watch/wristband GPS trackers. Sales, however, are brisk. The typical monthly sales volume of one GPS tracking necklace is said to be 1,686 units, while the most popular senior smartwatch on the site sells some 1,432 units. Both devices cost around RMB300.

This lack of product variety is clear in terms of the stock of both online outlets and conventional stores. Indeed visits to a number of the better-known electrical good retailers in Beijing found that, while a considerable variety of sports watches and children's wristbands were available, elder-specific wearables were comparatively rare, with only two real options on offer.

Photo: An elder-styled wearable device.
An elder-styled wearable device.
Photo: An elder-styled wearable device.
An elder-styled wearable device.

One wristband, priced at RMB499, offers a number of alarm functions tailored to the needs of the elderly, including pill reminders, motion sensors and a fall detection alarm. This is in addition to the standard features of many fitness wristbands, such as heart rate monitors and a sleep tracking facility. In terms of product design, this particular wristband comes emblazoned with the Fu character, the Chinese term for "fortune". The wristband, however, does not come fitted with a SIM card so has no GPS-tracking facility.

According to the staff at one outlet, wearables with built-in GPS tend to be targetted at the children's market and are not suitable for seniors in terms of both their sizing and style. One sales assistant said: "While Taobao.com and a number of other technology companies may offer senior-friendly GPS devices, traditional brands seldom do."

One smartwatch for seniors, complete with built-in GPS, however, was on sale at another nearby store. This particular model featured a large square screen with four side-mounted buttons keyed to emergency call, voice call, current time and heart rate monitoring functions. The watch was on sale for RMB1,680, considerably more than the aforementioned wristband. According to staff at the store, however, this high price has not deterred purchasers, with at least 20 units sold every week.

Huge Opportunities for Innovative Foreign Products

With domestic brands having developed relatively few senior wearables, imports from the more mature markets − notably Japan and the US – tend to dominate the sector. In addition to this, a number of disability aids are seen as having crossover potential in the elderly sector.

According to the findings of one Japanese company, even if senior citizens own GPS pendants or mobile phones, they often forget them when they go out. As shoes are a necessity whenever leaving home, this particular company has introduced GPS-enabled footwear. While such shoes are already on sale on the mainland, they are only available for children and are not suitable for seniors. It is clear then that similar products in sizes and styles suitable for pensioners would find a ready market across China.

Photo: The hip-protecting wearable air bag.
The hip-protecting wearable air bag.
Photo: The hip-protecting wearable air bag.
The hip-protecting wearable air bag.

Safety-focussed wearable products for seniors are also seen as having good market potential. At present, fall detection devices for the elderly are already available on the mainland and have proved a popular option with concerned family members.

One US company has also developed a wearable safety airbag that can be worn like a belt. When its built-in 3D motion sensor detects a falling motion, the airbag will inflate and protect the wearer from impact damage. In particular, the airbag is said to reduce damage to the hips by up to 90%.

Aside from senior-friendly wearables sourced from overseas, finger readers designed specifically for those with a visual impairment can also be of use to the elderly. Just over two years ago, US researchers developed a finger-mounted reading device. When wearing the device, pointing to text on a page or screen prompts a synthetic voice to read out the text.

This device also comes with a motion detector that alerts the user when the finger strays from the target text. For seniors with a visual impairment and shaky hands, this allows them to easily read such items as books, newspapers, drug descriptions and menus.

There are a number of senior products that have already found favour on the mainland, including auto-balancing shoes, smart sensor pads, smart glasses and smart clothing. These can currently be imported or used as inspiration by domestic manufacturers keen to enter the sector.

The Hong Kong Proximity Advantage

Currently, the Beijing Civil Affairs Bureau is co-operating with 360 companies on a programme intended to distribute free GPS-tracking wristbands to seniors with cognitive disorders. In a similar move, Shenzhen has in place its own action plan designed to refine the range of smart products and services available to the city's senior citizens, with a particular emphasis on the provision of wearable devices.

The Shenzhen plan also has a focus on the development of smart clothes capable of monitoring the health condition of the elderly, particularly with regard to heart rate, respiration and blood sugar levels. It is also considering the viability of introducing smart shoes and pendants, GPS watches and wristbands, fall detection systems, emergency call facilities, health alert units and pill reminder devices. The move has been driven by forecasts that the value of Shenzhen's senior market will rise from its 2015 level of RMB4 billion to more than RMB10 billion by 2017.

With Hong Kong set just 17 miles away from Shenzhen, the mainland city's elderly care programme is said to offer considerable opportunities for investors and manufacturers based in the SAR.

Zhao Jia, Special Correspondent, Beijing

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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