Elderly-friendly wearables are key to monitoring the health and whereabouts of this affluent, yet vulnerable, sector of society.
Across the Chinese mainland, wearable devices are this year's must-have accessories, particularly for seniors. The trend is most notable in Shenzhen, where authorities have announced a major initiative geared to developing a wearables programme focused on senior citizens. The mainland senior wearables sector is still in its infancy, with comparatively few products available, offering 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 end 2015, there were some 220 million people in the mainland aged 60 or above, about 16.1 per cent of the total population. As the number of people in this segment 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, the mainland will become the world's-largest market for elderly-oriented products and services. Between 2014 and 2050, the spending power of the mainland's senior citizens is projected to surge from Rmb4 trillion to Rmb106 trillion.
Wearables refer to a range of portable smart devices that include, in the elderly sector, either tracking devices or fall alarms, which are often used by seniors living on their own or suffering from some form of cognitive disorder.
According to the China Wearable Device Market Research Report issued by the China Academy of Information and Communication Technology (CAICT), smart wristbands, including smartwatches, 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 dementia sufferers has created a strong demand for wearables, the lack of more bespoke products for the elderly has prevented wider adoption.
According to Cao Bingliang, Vice President of the China Silver Industry Association, the nascent industry on the mainland mainly comprises wristbands and GPS-tracking necklaces dominating the sector. Little research and development, to date, has been invested in developing wearables specifically targeted at the more senior market. 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 about Rmb300.
The lack of product variety is apparent in terms of the stock of both online outlets and conventional stores. Indeed, visits to several better-known electrical goods retailers in Beijing revealed 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.
One wristband, priced at Rmb499, offers several 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, has no GPS-tracking facility.
According to staff at one outlet, wearables with built-in GPS tend to be targeted at the children's market. One GPS-enabled senior smartwatch at another store 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 selling for Rmb1,680, which was considerably more than the simpler wristband. But the high price has not deterred purchasers, with at least 20 units sold every week, according to staff.
With relatively few senior wearables from domestic brands, imports from mature markets − notably Japan and the United States – tend to dominate the sector. Several disability aids are also considered to have crossover potential in the elderly sector. GPS-enabled footwear, which currently cater only for children, also hold potential in the mainland, as well as safety-focused senior wearable products.
Fall detection devices are available on the mainland and are popular among families with elderly members. One US company has also developed a wearable safety airbag that can be worn like a belt. A built-in 3D motion sensor will trigger the airbag to inflate, protecting the wearer from the impact of a fall. In particular, the airbag is said to reduce damage to the hips by up to 90 per cent.
Apart from senior-friendly wearables from overseas, finger readers designed for the visually impaired also have applications for the elderly. A finger-mounted reading device developed in the US two years ago prompts a synthetic voice to read out the text when the device wearer points to text on a page or screen. This device also comes with a motion detector that alerts the user when the finger strays from the target text, allowing visually impaired seniors with unsteady hands to read books, newspapers, drug descriptions and menus.
Several senior products have already found favour on the mainland, including auto-balancing shoes, smart sensor pads, smart glasses and smart clothing, which can be imported or used as inspiration by domestic manufacturers keen to enter the sector.
The Hong Kong Advantage
The Beijing Civil Affairs Bureau is cooperating with 360 companies on a programme to distribute free GPS-tracking wristbands to seniors with cognitive disorders. In a similar move, Shenzhen has its own programme 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 is also focused on developing smart clothes capable of monitoring vital statistics, including 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 just 17 miles away from Shenzhen, the mainland city's elderly care programme offers considerable opportunities for investors and manufacturers based in the city.