Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Wearables & Personal Health Data

Recently, the viability of wearable devices has been put into question. Both pundits and consumers alike are asking themselves, "What is the point?" with many calling the devices a "fad". This question is a valid concern, for after all, what does it mean to when users learn they walk 10,000 steps in a day, have a resting heart rate of 60 beats per minute, they slept for 7 hours 50 minutes last night, or see that they gained 6 pounds over the past 3 months?


Latest Fitbit lineup of wearable devices


I can understand these comments. Consumers want products to be simple and easy to use. Right now, these users are questioning whether these devices have a purpose beyond nudging them to exercise more. Let us take a look at the current user interface design for Fitbit:


Here is a chart of my resting heart rate over the past month.


Looking at takes some time to see what is going on. First, I can see clearly that on weekends my heart rate is lower, presumably I am more relaxed. On the 15th of March I was quite stressed at work, which was followed by a week of elevated heart rate. The precipitous decline shows the result of when I made a tough decision. In the future, I think Fitbit will make it easier to ascertain why your heartbeat is above or below normal levels, and suggest ways to adjust your behavior accordingly. Patterns may emerge, for instance, if you exercise 30 minutes per day, your heart rate may show you in a healthier range. If you eat certain foods or follow a certain diet you may see the corresponding results in your heart rate. Right now, the data is not intuitive, patterns don't jump out at you. That will change over time.

Next, Sleep Data.


Again, this gives almost nothing of true, useful value at first glance. It's nice to see how much you sleep, or how little you are sleeping. Although one thing I have found interesting, is that people have found out that they suffer from sleep apnea after they purchased a Fitbit by being able to see how many times they were restless at night. Moving forward, I think that the medical profession will be able to pinpoint certain disease onsets by studying user sleep patterns.

Wearable technology is about more than counting steps and working out. The next step is automatic data analysis for doctors to use and for each individual to have a personalized health assistant. Companies like Fitbit or Apple now need dedicated teams of scientists and doctors to analyze, link, and come up with suggestions based on the user's health data that these devices are capturing. Sleep trends may be correlated to caffeine consumption, stress, or overall health. The timing and duration of weight loss or weight gain can signify the onset of an illness. Our resting heart rate over time may be useful in trying to predict and prevent heart disease. We are just beginning to see this take shape. To count out wearables as nothing more than expensive pedometers is a mistake.

It reminds me of noted economist and NY Times writer Paul Krugman, who penned an article in 1998 in which he claimed... 


"By 2005 or so, it will become clear the Internet's impact on the economy has been no greater than the fax machines."

It is easy for people to be dismissive of new technologies. People may disregard many transformative ideas right up until the point they become mainstream. Wearables today may feel bulky and redundant to your smartphone, but they are becoming mainstream. Continuous improvements will allow these devices to gather valuable insight about ourselves that will help us all lead happier, healthier, and ultimately longer lives.