The dominant theme of this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was undeniably wearable tech. Almost everyone seemed to have a fitness tracker or a smartwatch to tout. There was even a GPS jacket that uses vibrating shoulder pads to tell you which way to turn. Oh, and a tweeting shoe, but let’s not dwell on that.
The wearable tech sector, for all its more ridiculous offerings, is growing significantly. Analysts at CCS Insight expect 12 million smartwatches to be sold this year and predict that shipments of fitness trackers will rise to 36 million by 2017.
And when an industry giant like Intel is touting plans for earphones that can monitor your heart rate instead of boasting about the clock speed of its latest PC processor, you know that change is underway. “The body”, as Forrester analyst Sarah Rotman Epps once put it, “is the next frontier for personal computing.”
That doesn’t just mean communications. There is more to wearable technology than information coming in – texts on your smartwatch and directions on your Google Glass. The potential for these devices to monitor the body opens up all kinds of opportunities for health and fitness.
The flurry of fitness trackers is partly a sign that the industry has spotted an opportunity and partly a reflection of how simple they are to make. An accelerometer in a wristband, backed with some algorithms to interpret the movements, is not an especially complex piece of technology. The trick is to put smart services behind the gadget, offering meaningful insight into the lives of users. So far nobody has managed to nail that.
The Jaybird Reign, announced at CES, is attempting to change that with a service that tells you when you are in the “Go Zone” and should keep active and when you should rest. If it works, other manufacturers are likely to follow.
And these devices could prove useful for more than just getting people off the couch. A Russian start-up called GERO used CES to unveil plans to use data from fitness trackers to identify chronic diseases. The technique is based on research findings that tiny changes in body movement can predict diseases such as Alzheimer’s, depression, diabetes, schizophrenia and more. The predictions are 60-85% accurate, depending on the disease, but the model is likely to improve with more data.
That’s just one way that relatively simple devices could have profound effects on our well-being. If models such as GERO’s become the norm then many serious conditions could be treated earlier, improving the well-being of patients and saving money on healthcare. More advanced monitoring tools, such as patches that monitor pulse, respiration, hydration levels and stress could be used to help people to manage an ongoing health problem.
It’s reasonable to expect that, if we permit them, our doctors will one day be able access charts and graphs showing our physical state over the few days before our visit, rather than relying only on our description of our symptoms. This data could even be run through a cloud service that looks for patterns, suggesting possible diagnoses to the physician.
Overall, there was a certain weariness with which technology pundits greeted the onslaught of activity trackers at CES. There are certainly a lot of “me too” releases showing up, but they shouldn’t be allowed to overshadow the important points. These devices really do work when it comes to making people more active and they might one day help to transform healthcare.
Shane Richmond is a specialist in digital media, who writes about technology for the Forum:Blog.
Health and technology will be on the agenda for the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting 2014 in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, from January 22 to 25.
Image: A Withings Smart Blood Pressure Monitor with an iPhone connection shown at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. REUTERS/Steve Marcus