There have been 41,301 wearable electronics patents published from 2010 through May 2015, and filings are growing at a 40 percent compound annual growth rate (CAGR), according to a report from Lux Research.
However, the report noted there are gaps in the portfolio, particularly with respect to flexible electronics. Samsung is the largest patent filer in both categories, accounting for four percent of wearables patents.
Compared with global data, Lux’s report found Samsung also has a greater focus on arm/hand (35 percent) and head/neck (28 percent) form factors, reflecting its smartwatch and virtual reality (VR) headgear products.
Also, more than half (53 percent) of its wearable patents are relevant to user output components, such as displays and speakers.
"Samsung is a major electronic device and component developer via Samsung Electronics, as well as a major display developer via Samsung Display," Tony Sun, a Lux Research analyst and lead author of the report, told eWEEK. "Thus, moving into wearable devices, such as smart watches and virtual reality goggles, are a natural fit for its existing technology portfolio, customer base, as well as manufacturing capability. As for Apple, it is the third filer in the wearable space but ranked about 20 in the printed, flexible, and organic electronics space."
Looking at end applications, 11 percent of global wearable patents are for consumer communications applications, such as entertainment, device control, and smartphone replacements. Health monitoring and athletics are close behind at 10 percent, but account for a full 25 percent of Samsung's filings.
"The [wearables] field will continue to grow but in a different way. Currently the majority of the wearable electronics market is still driven by activity trackers," Day explained. "As activity tracking becomes a standard function or component of wearable devices, expect major growth to come from other form factors like smartwatches and smart garments."
For applications, Day said he sees a lot of wearable innovation coming from the medical and health care industry, but has not seen as many products available, which may represent market opportunities in the near future.
Printed, flexible and organic electronics (PFOE) has been a hot area of research as well, totaling 140,926 patents since 2010, but the overlap between PFOE patents and wearables patents is tiny, just 651 publications.
"PFOE developers need to tune their R&D focus," Day said. "Organic photovoltaic (OPV) is the top patented PFOE technology, but still lacks the conversion efficiency and lifetime for mass adoption even after decades of research. On the other hand, technologies like e-paper displays and thin-film batteries are overlooked as they are able to address the key needs of wearables, but attract much less attention."