The Potential Behind Wearable Gadgets

The Potential Behind Wearable Gadgets:


The idea of using a sensor to track one of your bodily functions (say, your heart rate) used to be the domain of the medical industry or professional athletes. Today, it’s something anyone can buy at the Apple Store.
Walk by the accessories section in any store that sells smartphones and you’ll see names like FitbitNike+JawboneStriivBodyMedia and others, all selling small devices that listen to your body in one way or another. They often don’t look like much — just a curious tiny thing that often clips to your jeans, straps to your arm or wraps around your wrist — and even their collective name, “wearables,” doesn’t quite capture what they represent.
Another, more clinical name better describes these products: quantified-self devices. It’s more of a mouthful, but it better captures the goal: to record our interactions with the world and then turn that data into something easily understood, giving us insights in how we might change our behavior for the better.
It’s a straightforward goal, but until recently it was extremely difficult to achieve with a small, reasonably priced consumer gadget. Technological progress, however, gives wearable gadgets a twin engine. They are small, cheap sensors and they work with ever-more-powerful smartphones, continuously connected to the cloud. Now, the ability to capture data from the body and instantly process that data into something useful is truly in the palm of your hand.
“For a long time people have been wanting to track health and make good decisions, and now they have the tools to do it,” says Brad Kittredge, director of product management atJawbone, which makes the UP fitness bracelet.

The Tech Behind Wearables


Almost all wearable sensors connect to a smartphone or tablet in some way, using the phone’s data connection as its path to the cloud, where most data processing takes place.More than half of all mobile subscribers in the U.S. are smartphone owners, and every one of those smartphones is a technological marvel that any wearable can take advantage of.
Besides its network connection, one of the key ingredients the smartphone brings to the table its display, especially recent models like the HTC One, which brought full HD resolution (1,920 x 1,080) to smartphones. “It’s most important because you can understand the data and go deeper into it to figure out what it’s telling you,” Kittredge says.
In addition, smartphones are typically also our gateways to social networks. Part of the reason behind the explosion of wearable tech is that people want to share their data, especially their achievements. You only have to look at how often you see a Nike+ Fuelbandscore in your Facebook feed to see how influential the social component can be in wearable technology.

Smartphones are so advanced now, it’s fair to ask, why do we even need separate sensor devices at all?

Smartphones are so advanced now, it’s fair to ask, why do we even need separate sensor devices at all? After all, today’s phones are equipped with light sensors, accelerometers and even gyroscopes — why does someone need to wear a separate device to track things like movement?

“Wearable sensors have to be inherently wearable, that allows for a number of use cases the phone doesn’t — on your skin, on your body,” says Kittredge. “The wearable can see whether you’re awake and asleep. It can also interact with you: The UP can nudge you to wake you up during light sleep, for example.”
In addition, while sensors on cellphones have improved dramatically over the last few years, there are a few things they lack. An altimeter, which precisely measures altitude, is not a standard sensor you’ll find on a smartphone, so something like the Striiv, which promises to track personal movement, including stair climbing, needs its own hardware.
Kittredge points out that wearing a device — as opposed to just carrying a cellphone — often changes behavior.
“When you have something you’re wearing, you’re cognizant that you’re wearing it,” he says. “We find that people move 26% more while wearing the UP.”

The Real Product: Data

Measuring our bodies — whether it’s movement, sleep or meals — is just step one. The most important part is turning that data into something comprehensible we can act upon. Most wearables pair with an app that shows your activity over time, letting you spot patterns and change what you do. Jawbone takes this a step further with its UP platform, importing data from other services and letting those services access the data from the UP bracelet.
“With the API, we’re trying to deliver that in a way that’s unique,” says Kittredge. “Using that API, you can pull in the sources of data that you care about and track it in a way that you want. The more signals you can capture, the more we can understand the connection points and patterns.”
As this data collection becomes more sweeping and sophisticated, the future could see it incorporated with our medical care. Your doctor might be able to make better recommendations, for example, if he could see how much you move in the course of a typical day, or what you eat. Eventually, insurance companies could get involved, possibly giving customers who use a wearable device lower rates — as long as they share that data.
That possibility brings with it obvious privacy concerns, especially given the recent news about NSA surveillance of people’s data. Kittredge says the conversation between health-care providers and the wearable industry has begun, and that the concerns are being addressed.
“From a cultural standpoint, we’re more aware of the pros and cons of sharing data,” Kittredge says. 

“I think there’s real potential, but people will have to be very cognizant of Big Brother.”

“I think there’s real potential, but people will have to be very cognizant of Big Brother.”

“We don’t think that’s what this is. I think a lot of people would be interested in sharing their data with their doctor.”
What do you think: Are wearables a passing fad, or will they become ever-more intertwined with our digital lives? Let us know in the comments.

By Pete Pachal

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