Printers to wearables: Epson takes smart tech punt

Japanese electronics conglomerate Epson is betting on wearable devices aimed squarely at health care, a business which could be worth 20 billion yen ($173.6 million) for the company by 2019, the group's president told CNBC.

The maker of printers released three major devices this year: heart rate activity monitor Pulsense, GPS sports monitor Runsense which tracks your exercise data, and augmented reality smartglasses called Moverio BT-200. Analysts have cast doubts on the success of such a move however.

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Epson is the world's third biggest printer maker by market share, according to IDC, and has seen its popularity rise in a robust printer market. The move into wearables marks the company's attempt to gain a foothold in the health care and medical market.

"That is very important area for us in the future," Epson President Minoru Usui, told CNBC by phone.


"We are starting at sports and health care. We intend over the next few years to steadily expand in the health care area and in the future go into real medical applications."

Smartglasses in surgery

The global health care accessory hardware market will be worth $3 billion by 2019, according to Juniper Research, and Usui said the shift into the space would "contribute significantly" to Epson's top line within five years. The total wearable business for Epson will be a 10 billion yen business in three years and worth double by 2019, according to Usui.

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Samsung and Apple have both released smartwatches with fitness trackers in them and the space is hotting up with a slew of companies releasing wearable devices, many of them dedicated to tracking health.

But Epson says its proprietary sensor technology will allow it to make products differentiated from the devices on the market, with products aimed at the corporate market. Usui told CNBC that the firm was looking to develop products that could check blood pressure, sugar levels, and the state of the heart. He also said that the augmented reality BT-200 smartglasses could one day be used by doctors during surgery procedure.

Attendee tries the Epson Moverio BT-200 smart glasses at the 2014 International CES in Las Vegas, Nevada, January 7, 2014.
Robyn Beck | AFP | Getty Images

Usui also unveiled that the company is exploring technology that could check the health of buildings and infrastructure within cities.

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"We are experimenting with it here in Japan. The results are positive. It has considerable potential," Usui told CNBC.

'Peculiar' move

But analysts said that Epson could have mixed fortunes in the wearable market with success likely to come in the industrial space rather than with consumers.

Wearables for a specialized medical use are a "big opportunity", according to Ben Wood, mobile analyst at CCS Insight, but Epson could struggle in the consumer space.

"As a consumer brand, it is a huge leap for them to go from the printer market and make that jump into consumers' minds when you see such intense competition from other companies," Wood told CNBC in a phone interview.

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Sam Gee, senior technology analyst at Mintel, said that while Epson is known amongst consumers for its printers, it will find it hard to immediately gain traction in the wearable market.

"It is peculiar that a company with very little brand heritage in physicality in running or sports would move into wearables so they will find it harder to succeed in the short term, but there is nothing that excludes them from succeeding in the long-term as long as the devices are responsive," Gee told CNBC by phone.