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Stick These in Your Ears

Google, Microsoft, Nike, Apple, Amazon. Now Intel is the latest entrant in the wearable tech race.

Intel on Thursday evening launched the first product from its New Devices Group — Biosport, which are earbuds that monitor the wearer’s heart rate. The earbuds, a collaboration with 50 Cent and Carmelo Anthony’s firm, SMS Audio, will be sold at Henri Bendel, Kitson and Nordstrom, among other retailers. The retail price wasn’t revealed at press time.

“We have a very good following among the fashionista crowd,” said Brian Nohe, president of SMS. “Our products are known for being a little more colorful and cool.”

In launching the earbuds, Intel will directly compete with Apple, which in May bought Dr. Dre’s Beats electronics brand for $3 billion. And although Intel doesn’t sell direct to consumers but partners with other brands, the company has lots of other wearable tech products in the pipeline.

To help scale up the wearable world, Intel is connecting more than 400 designers who are members of the Council of Fashion Designers of America with a broad ecosystem of hardware and software developers that the semiconductor firm has cultivated. It’s also brought together engineers and designers from brands such as Chanel, Cartier, Citizen, Kate Spade, Michael Kors, Tommy Hilfiger and Tory Burch.

Mike Bell, corporate vice president and general manager of the New Devices Group at Intel, said the company’s partnership with Opening Ceremony will introduce product later this year. “This is the second hopefully of many launches,” he said.

Bell declined to provide further details.

To show how serious it is about wearables, the $53 billion Intel launched a contest, the Make It Wearable Challenge, to “find ideas that will change the future of wearable technology.”

The SMS Audio Biosport headphones will bring smart exercise capabilities to athletes of different levels. The headphones were introduced at an event held at the New Museum’s Sky Room in New York with 50 Cent and Anthony in attendance.

“For us, it’s a showcase of our philosophy of what has to happen for this wearable market to become as big as we think it will be,” said Bell. “It’s not the biggest example, but it’s an important example.

“It’s a really good example of how wearable tech should work,” he added. “The best wearable tech is often invisible. You almost don’t know it’s there. A lot of other wearables have to adopt this technology. People don’t like to walk around with things that scream ‘I’m a geek.’ They want the style they’re used to.”

Bell said style and function aren’t mutually exclusive: “It’s not an either-or kind of thing. There are different colors for men [blue] and women [pink]. Headphones have become a fashion accessory. We produced something state of the art. The other people in this space that have done ear buds with this technology just built it and stuck their name on it.”

Biosport headphones have several points of difference. The headphones don’t need batteries or a Bluetooth connection to operate; they get their power from the audio jack. The earbuds will be supporting Runkeeper, a fitness-tracking app. They are water resistant. “This is the biggest leap in the [audio] category,” said Nohe. “Fitness apps are the single largest group of apps being downloaded on Apple and Android.”

Nohe said the Biosport headphones measure heart rate through the pulse in the ear. “It’s the best way you can do it. The problem with the wristband is there’s so much movement,” he said, referring to fitness bracelets. “The wrist keeps sliding and slipping due to sweat.”

Nohe said the product will launch globally and will be a “significant addition to our product line and a significant addition to the category. We’ll be developing TV commercials and print advertising for the product.”

SMS has a strong new product lineup ahead. “There’s a whole menu of things we’ll be looking to do with [Intel],” Nohe said.

Intel is ready. “Our thinking on wearables is that they should absolutely go much beyond the fitness and sports focus they have,” said Aysegul Ildeniz, vice president and general manager of Intel’s New Devices Group.

Intel missed the mobile revolution by failing to develop chips specifically for that market; the company’s sluggishness allowed rivals such as Qualcomm a big head start and it is now playing catch up. The two largest smartphone original equipment manufacturers, Apple and Samsung, develop their own systems on a chip, or SoCs.

Clearly Intel doesn’t want to be late to the wearable tech game. And there is plenty to play for. The size of the market is difficult to quantify, but The NPD Group estimates that wearables racked up $475 million in sales for the last 12 months, based on the two categories it follows — smartwatches and full-body activity trackers. “I expect the market to double in size over the next 12 months given the interest from consumers, the number of companies entering the space, and the fact that Apple and Google have yet to release hardware into the consumer market,” said Ben Arnold, a senior analyst at NPD. “Big venture capital funds are seeing the potential for the appeal of these products and for these technologies at some time to become indispensable to people. They’re trying to tap into that.”

Credit Suisse IT Hardware analyst Kulbinder Garcha predicted that the market for wearable technology will increase tenfold to as much as $50 billion over the next three to five years.

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