For the wearable tech market to thrive, it needs to get in better shape

Any attendee at this year’s CES couldn’t help but notice the sheer number of wearable health vendors in the health and fitness section of the convention floor. What was once a small corner at last year’s show has blossomed into a couple hundred exhibitors. Confirming the trend is real, ABI Research claims that nearly 30 million wireless wearable health devices were shipped in 2012 and that figure is projected to grow to 48 million in 2013. But with so many new companies producing their activity monitors, fitness trackers and calorie counters, what is the tangible future for this segment of emerging tech?

Well, we may have gotten a preview of that recently with Jawbone’s acquisition of BodyMedia (Disclosure: the author’s company, Comcast Ventures, is an investor in BodyMedia). Coming on the heels of Zeo closing the doors on its innovative sleep tracking device, is it possible the pendulum is already swinging from proliferation and expansion to consolidation in just four short months since CES?

I think it’s still too soon to make that call, but clearly market leaders like Jawbone are looking forward, identifying what still needs to be solved in this category, and acting strategically. It’s going to be a land grab for the right talent, intellectual property and data that can help.

Below are three key components that companies in the wearable technology segment still need to address in order to produce positive results for today’s consumers and stay relevant:

  1. Accuracy and efficacy: The core sensing technology for many of these products is a three-axis accelerometer of the same sort found in our smartphones. A lot can be inferred from one sensor, but having a multitude of sensors sharpens the accuracy of what we think the body is doing. That’s why we are seeing additional sensors such as heart rate, skin temperature, galvanic skin response and heat flux becoming more prevalent in these devices. It’s also critical to appreciate the increased order of magnitude in difficulty when going from one sensor to multiple sensors.  Sensor fusion is the future, but sensor fusion is hard.  Only true data scientists need apply.When dealing with personal health, “close enough” is not good enough, and this class of product could be leading its consumers astray. The healthcare industry is accustomed to conducting clinical studies and publishing research findings. While that model is perhaps a little heavyweight for fitness trackers, there is still room for greater transparency on the accuracy and efficacy of these devices. Simply put, accuracy shouldn’t be in the eye of the beholder, and can only be achieved by benchmarking against voluminous amounts of data over a sustained period of time. In order to establish and justify widespread consumer trust, there needs to be independent analysis against gold standards, shared in a public setting.
  2. The right form factor for the occasion: At CES 2013, we witnessed new wristbands from Fitbit and Fitbug (Disclosure: see below), new forearm bands from Scosche and Wahoo, new clip-on units from Withings and GeoPalz, and new watches from Basis and Mio. The technology has also moved to T-shirts, headbands, hats and shoes and BodyMedia showed off a more jewelry-like form factor. Clearly there’s a lot of experimentation with form factor going on, and the question remains whether one dominant type will emerge that rules them all, or if instead manufacturers evolve to a product line strategy with a SKU that accompanies each corresponding daily activity.We’re accustomed to changing our clothes during the course of the day, so some would argue it’s not unreasonable to think we may some day adopt the habit of change our assemblage of devices, too. But a strong case can be made too that passive tracking may be the preferred long-term model over premeditated, active tracking – we’ve all witnessed too many New Year’s resolutions fall by the wayside to assume otherwise.
  3. Coaching and counseling: At its core, all these devices encourage behavioral change in an individual to lead a more active, healthy lifestyle. Any weight loss or fitness professional will tell you that maintaining a behavioral change is extremely difficult and so when left as a solo endeavor, the chances of long-term success are less than promising.Thus several companies have wisely paired their products with fitness services to increase consumers’ chances for success: Philips Active Link is available to Weight Watchers members, BodyMedia is a long-standing partner with 24 Hour Fitness, and Fitbit collaborates with Retrofit. Incorporating the use of these devices in a larger, more holistic program makes a lot of sense and may become the predominant model of engagement in the future. For sure, the data scientists can make the data dashboards coming off of these apps more intuitive, more actionable, more DIY, but the successful system of tomorrow may just need to expand its scope into “services” such as coaching and counseling.

We are experiencing more consumerization of healthcare and this class of technologies engenders more knowledge and more transparency. For this category to have the long lasting affect we all hope for, however, the technology needs to evolve beyond simply measuring calories burned or steps walked. The market winners and losers are starting to take shape.

Disclosure: Fitbit is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, founder of Giga Omni Media, is also a venture partner at True.

Michael Yang is Managing Director of Comcast Ventures. 

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