In 2019, we had a fair amount of wearables launches from the companies you would typically expect, such as Garmin, Withings, Fossil, and Asus. All of these companies are promising that their technology will make you fitter, healthier, happier, and more productive. But have you ever thought what exactly the future is for these fitness devices?
To understand the future of wearable technology, it’s probably worth just recapping how these devices work usually. From the most basic device, you can get from the bottom shelf to expensive fitness wearables from Fitbit or even Apple; all use some kind of motion sensors – a gyroscope, accelerometer, magnetometer, or some combination of all three. These sensors enable the devices on the wrist to determine the position of one’s arm in three-dimensional space. From there, a series of algorithms will mostly do very good guesswork to determine the rest of the body and what it is doing. So, if one’s arm is straightened down by the side and swaying, the slightly definitive motion suggests that the person is probably walking. This comparison happens with all other activities – running, jogging, or other vigorous exercises.
Garmin’s smartwatch cum fitness trackers use the second most commonly used technology to track your fitness. On the back of the watch, you will see is an optical heart rate or PPG sensor, which uses pulse oximetry to judge the size of the red blood cells in your blood. From there, you can draw lots of very useful conclusions about the body. For instance, how much oxygen you’re carrying around, your blood pressure, and heart rate and your VO2 max, which is the maximum rate of oxygen consumption measured during incremental exercise. This is an indicator of your overall fitness. These devices also use the same technology to measure respiration. In its new yoga mode, it can determine your breathing and, by extension, how at one you are with the world.
The third and newest of all of these technologies is an ECG, used by both Withings and Asus watches. It measures the electrical activity of your heart to check whether you’re suffering from any life-threatening condition. If you’re feeling under the weather and you run an ECG from your wrist, it can tell you whether you’re suffering from something like atrial fibrillation. If you are, it will ask you to get to the emergency room pronto.
There are plenty of things that you can do with some or all of those technologies that can be genuinely beneficial. Apple made a big deal about introducing full detection to the Apple watch, but in fact, it’s just using the accelerometer, which is guessing when it thinks you’ve fallen. There’s no great engineering wizardry used there! It’s just clever algorithms.
Similarly, there are a lot of gyroscopes and devices which are smart and sensitive enough to tell the difference from when you’re using a rowing machine compared to when you’re running. Companies like Fitbit do the exact same thing. You’ve set a time, and it’ll remind you when you’re too sedentary, and that will help you live a slightly more active, slightly healthier life.
But here’s the problem! All these three sensors are going to get more common to the point where they’re in every major fitness device and smartwatch on the market in two or three years. And there aren’t that many other technologies that we can branch out into to do the next big thing.
However, there’s something new like galvanic skin response, which measures the moisture in your skin as a response to a stimulus. Some companies recently claimed that it could determine how many calories you consumed from galvanic skin response, but it is yet to see if it could be accurate or not. Similarly, another new development in wearable technology is determining diabetes using microneedles that would burrow into the skin and do continuous blood sugar monitoring. However, there’s no indication that that technology will be ready anytime soon.
And there’s another tension here. As these devices become more accurate and more pervasive, you’re going to start worrying about privacy. Let’s be honest here. If you don’t trust big tech with pictures of your kids, do you want them looking after your medical data?
Looking at the way the wind is blowing, it seems relatively obvious that within two or three years, a lot of major wearables are going to offer all three of these sensors. And that’s great for consumers because it means that everyone will be able to get these sorts of devices at reasonably low prices. Now the commoditization will be great for consumers, but it’s going to come at the cost of innovation. Take Apple, for example. It is now trying to fill the gaps in its hardware that its competitors already have, like sleep tracking. As a consequence, it may be that the company is butting up against the technical limits of what other fitness wearables can already do.