Friday, December 7, 2012

Wearable tech and the future of health

Last week, I started using the Fitbit wireless activity tracker. Of course, fitness and activity monitors have been around for years - the Nike FuelBand, Jawbone Up and Fitbit are just some of the products that come to mind. Till today, all the activity trackers are basically pedometers/altimeters, with some (like Fitbit) offering an additional functionality of tracking sleep, linking with inputs from other mobile apps etc. 

The real differentiation apart from design and looks comes from the software interface and the way it presents statistics and graphs of your activity level to help you understand and modify your lifestyle to be more active. For example Nike Fuel is designed to share data and competitively motivate each other to perform better. Fitbit is more oriented to people who like to monitor their own stats personally

I really like the Fitbit for a simple reason - as a researcher, I believe that data empowers us to change. At work, I deal on a regular basis with customer data and statistics. Understanding and analysing these is my job and when I do it well, it results in useful decisions and actions that impact clients' businesses for the better.

Why shouldn't the same principle apply for my personal data, and transformation in my own life and routine? 

Today technology makes monitoring and collection of data easier than ever before. All smartphones are equipped with basic GPS sensors which allow a plot of distance and altitude. Some have advanced sensors like barometers and altimeters which can be deployed for greater data richness. Mobile broadband and app interfaces make it easy to enter, sync and present real time data to users. At the backend, enterprises are developing increasingly sophisticated tools for processing "Big Data" for customer delight. And there is a possibility that customers are willing to pay for such data. One of the simplest and most effective tools offered in Fitbit premium ($49.99 annually) is the ability to benchmark your activity and fitness levels against your peers in a granular way - here is a sample graph;



I have learnt a lot about myself from Fitbit - for example, that I walk much more than I realise, that I eat much less than I blame myself for (!) and that just a small and conscious increase in activity level can make me way fitter than I am. It's not that I don't know these things in theory, but seeing them backed by data makes  them a lot more convincing and real. 

And the future of wearable tech for health just got a lot more exciting. Just recently, Basis has launched a sophisticated activity monitor using cutting edge sensors like an optical BP monitor,  a three axis accelerometer, a perspiration monitor which monitors change in sweat levels from different activities and a skin temperature sensor. Put together, this can take data collection to another level, using a physiological understanding of your body to recommend incremental and long term changes in habits that will benefit health.

If you were planning to spring for a Nike FuelBand, I advise you to consider the Basis at a similar price range of $199. In fact, reading about Basis made me spring for a Fitbit, because while I cannot really afford to spend that amount right now, apart from from the fact it does not ship to India yet, I still wanted a small piece of the action.

Those of us who spend thousands of rupees annually on gym memberships that we don't use (I am guilty) can probably benefit from changing the routine that we already follow rather than trying to introduce a new routine eg. balancing a one hour workout with a demanding job. It's easier to just take the stairs at work everyday AND feel good when you see that it's made a big difference. Senior citizens, heart patients and diabetics who cannot undertake strenuous exercise can get a companion through a device which gently encourages them to be active - and achieves better results than the doctor's exhortation during monthly visits to lose some weight.

Educating and motivating people to be healthy can be the biggest trend in wearable tech this decade.