Mike Feibus, Special to USA TODAY
Published 5:01 a.m. ET Sept. 29, 2019
You might want to think twice about using a fitness app to track your workouts.
When Fitbit’s inaugural tracker helped catapult us into the age of the wearable a decade ago, there wasn’t even an app for that.
Hard to blame Fitbit, really. Android and iOS smartphones made up only about 3% of the mobile market at the time. Instead, the wearable pioneer’s first tracker, which began shipping 10 years ago Sunday, connected to Fitbit’s online dashboard via a charging dock that plugged into a PC’s USB socket for power and connectivity.
The Fitbit Classic, as the company now calls it, clipped to a piece of clothing. And by virtue of its built-in motion sensor, the tracker played a major role in cultivating the nation’s obsession with step counts as a proxy for physical activity and, to a lesser degree, the lack thereof as a sleep gauge.
“It’s been a fun 10 years,” James Park, Fitbit’s CEO and Co-founder, told me. “It’s amazing to think that when we started, the state of the art was what we developed: an accelerometer-based activity and sleep-tracking device. And now we’ve come to a world where these are almost smartphones on your wrist.
“You have an array of sensors, and interactive screens and microphones – and in a size that’s pretty close to the original device we developed. The evolution is just amazing to me.”
As Park says, the state of the industry has catapulted far beyond the Classic in many ways. The ongoing melding of fitness trackers and smartwatches not only offers up a vast trove of fitness- and health-related data that dwarfs what Fitbit delivered a decade ago. The latest devices also boast a suite of calendar and news alerts, voicemail and text messages, directions – even Uber rides and OpenTable reservations. Indeed, whatever it is you seek, chances are there’s also a smartwatch app for that.
The more things change…
Advanced heart rate and environmental sensors have given the smartphone-on-a-wrist power to measure much more – everything from sleep stages to stress levels. And yet, counting steps curiously maintains its place on center stage.
It’s not totally without merit. Research has both validated and advanced the role of step-counting in tracking and improving our health. We now know, for example, that it’s better for our bodies to log activity each hour than to bowl through 10,000 steps before work and then sit staring at a computer for four hours.
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Even so, as we enter the second decade of the wearables phenomenon, the outsized role of this anachronistic proxy for fitness is in some ways emblematic of Silicon Valley’s all-too-eager penchant for measuring and reporting – and, perhaps more significantly – its struggle to deliver cogent, actionable insights from the data it collects.
Certainly, we’ve seen some progress in the insight wearables deliver, particularly over the past two or three years. Fitbit, for example, just added a Sleep Score to help assess whether 45 minutes of REM and 32 minutes of deep sleep during a seven-hour, 25-minute slumber amounts to a quality showing. And the Apple Watch Series 4 and 5 devices have built-in ECG that helps decide whether to get examined by a clinician.
‘It saved my life’: Apple Watch, Fitbit are notifying users of medical emergencies
Even so, we are still a very long way from wearables realizing the potential benefits from the data they already collect.
A Fitbit helped one woman detect a life-threatening condition. Buzz60 Emily Drooby (@emilydrooby) has the story.
What tomorrow may bring
With that as a backdrop, it should be clear that the next 10 years will be as much about bringing new metrics to wearables as delivering new insights from the metrics the devices already collect.
Here are three other things I’m expecting from wearables in coming years:
Blood Pressure: First, the good news: blood pressure will be the next decade’s monster wearables metric. It has the potential to dramatically advance detection and care for the more than 100 million Americans with hypertension. And we’ll begin to see it available in wearables in as little as 12 to 18 months.
The bad news? This powerful new metric won’t be available on smartwatches or fitness trackers for a very long time. Watch for hearables to be the first consumer devices to measure blood pressure. Smart rings and finger cuffs won’t be far behind.
Pairables: As you might infer, wrists, fingers and ears each present wearables makers very different opportunities and challenges.
The wrist is a great spot to strap a display, a full suite of sensors and a sizeable battery to power them. But the wrist moves every which way, which makes it one of the most confounding sites on the body to collect biometrics.
The ear, conversely, is one of the best spots. The finger isn’t too bad – and rings are much easier to wear overnight for sleep tracking than earbuds.
All of this is to say that wearables makers will need to offer what I’m calling pairables: a set of two or three devices that work together to collect the best metrics and squeeze every ounce of insight out of them.
And the third prediction? Ten years from now, we’ll still be logging steps. Count on it!
USA TODAY columnist Mike Feibus is president and principal analyst of FeibusTech, a Scottsdale, Arizona, market research and consulting firm, and producer of Privacy Now, a twice-monthly interview series on YouTube. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MikeFeibus.
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