The next opportunity for wearable technologies: aesthetics

Many of us have seen both the hype around wearables as well as the growing number of critiques of the hype. But one thing is clear: what we see in the market now is just the beginning, a warm up band for the main act to follow.
In my previous post I discussed the problem of sustainable use of tracking devices and how consumers abandon them within months typically. But is the battle for the wrist and smartwatches really the future of wearable technology? Why the wrist and why do products designed for the wrist and marketed for their aesthetics such as the Fitbit Alta fail to impress from a design perspective?
Furthermore, could user experience be wrapped up with aesthetics and could this be an important factor even for medical devices? Of course it is. We need only go back nearly a decade to find examples of how aesthetics were used to rethink wearable technology. It might be time to re-visit the past to see the future.
Nearly a decade ago, diabetes blogger Amy Tenderich posted a blog bemoaning the fact that diabetics needed their own Steve Jobs to re-design the insulin pump. The device worn by many diabetics to manage insulin levels was viewed as a clunky medical device devoid of any aesthetic considerations. Functionality trumped aesthetics. But sick people, or those struggling with chronic diseases and/or aging, do care about aesthetics, especially if they have the device on the body.
A design firm in San Francisco discovered the blog post and within a short time re-designed an insulin pump that could make diabetics feel better about wearing the device. We hear a lot about patient engagement these days and in this context, aesthetics mean a lot.
Devices are not solely about data and the data are not the only dimensions of disease or wellness. These can become aspects of identities.  To illustrate the case, a similar design effort was sponsored by the UK Design Council over a decade ago to rethink the hearing aid and create “hear ware”.
At the time, ‘Hearing Aids’ were viewed as stigmatized and associated with the aging body. Introducing an aesthetic component helped designers to re-imagine hearing devices well beyond the hearing aid, to address hearing challenges we all face, such as being in a noisy restaurant or when exposed to noise pollution. The competition featured in the Victoria and Albert Museum featured devices resembling jewelry with a wider range of functions.
Now enter Amanda Parkes, a New York-based technologist/designer with a PhD from MIT’s Media Lab. Notice as well, the location: New York, the heart of high fashion in the US. Famous for her invocation, “Let Silicon Valley have the wrist, I’ll take the body”, Amanda is deep into re-imagining wearables from both a fashion perspective and materials design. From smart fibers to fiber batteries and bio-materials, she is rethinking the whole concept of the wearable from an aesthetic angle and materials. Wearables, meet Bauhaus design principles.
When we look at what is going on in the labs these days, with sensors in the form of tattoos that can detect ever more powerful biometric indications, we need to begin thinking about the body as an interface. Many of these sensors will be invisible. They may be connected to your mobile money application as well.
When the novelty of wearing a shrunken iPhone on the wrist wears off, there is much more work to be done from an innovation standpoint. Parkes makes the case for diversity, as many in the tech sector do these days, but for rethinking form, function and appearance.
Perhaps in no other sector will diversity in design from an age, gender, ethnicity, you name it subjectivity; aesthetics follows broader cultural norms and trends. And this matters in healthcare too. I’m betting the next generation of market leaders in this sector will grasp this, and in doing so will find themselves pushing on an open door. Aesthetics matters for the afflicted as much for the well, if not more so.
 
Interested in learning about the evolution of wearables health technology? Check out this infographic produced by the Washington Post.

Study says: Don’t buy a fitness tracker, just use your phone

Pretty much every fitness tracker on the market does the same thing: Using an accelerometer, it tracks how many steps you’ve taken, and from that accelerometer data, usually can extrapolate distance traveled as well as calories burned. Of course, your smartphone has an accelerometer, so why do you need a Fitbit, or a Jawbone Up 24, or a Misfit Shine? According to a new research letter published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, you don’t — smartphones can track steps just as well as a dedicated fitness tracker.

The study looked at 10 different trackers — four smartphone apps and six fitness trackers, including the Moves app (now owned by Facebook) for iOS and Android, multiple Fitbit models and the Nike Fuelband. The researchers — some of whom are still medical students — strapped several trackers to the subjects, who then walked on a treadmill for 500 steps, and then 1,500 steps, twice. Ultimately, the 14 participants in the study ran 56 trials (four treadmill runs each) meaning that there were 560 gadget step-reading data points.

The study found that phones, either running the Moves app, Fitbit app, or the Health Mate app, were as accurate as the dedicated step tracking hardware, and most of the trackers were within 10 percent of each other — except for the now almost-discontinued Nike Fuelband, which recorded steps that were over 20 percent lower than the observed steps and other devices.

One interesting tidbit from the study: In eight of the 560 device trials, the gadget wasn’t properly configured to record steps, which lines up with my personal experience that your step tracker will not be working around one percent of the time. There’s also a chance that the study’s findings could be affected by configuration settings — for instance, Fitbit’s option to tell it that you’re wearing it on your dominant wrist.

This study’s not going to be the be-all and end-all for step tracking accuracy. In fact, this study observing 10 women and four men recruited at a college isn’t all that different from certain anecdotal evidence, like this informal experiment conducted last year by science journalist Rachel Feltman. In my experience, most wearable tracker manufacturers know there’s a roughly 10 percent difference between various step readings, which is more than accurate enough for early adopters and techies. But this study underscores the fact that as wearable devices and step trackers infiltrate the healthcare system, more academic research will be required.

Lumoid will rent you five pieces of wearable tech for a week

Even if you do your research online, it can be hard to figure out which fitness tracker is right for your needs. Information like whether a Fitbit can track sleep is a Google search away, but knowing whether you like the way the band feels on your wrist is more subjective.

A new service from Lumoid called Wearables Box will let users get more hands-on time with fitness trackers in their own homes. Starting on Monday, Lumoid will rent you up to five new-in-box fitness trackers of your choice for a week, with a return label included. If you end up falling in love with one of them, you can keep it and pay Lumoid full retail price. If you don’t, the entire process will cost you $20.

Lumoid will help users decide which trackers they’d like to try by organizing the 25 available trackers by features such as sleep tracking and connectivity.

“I’m a runner, for example,” Lumoid founder Aarthi Ramamurthy said. “My use case is completely different from someone else who is trying to track sleep or someone who wants to count calories or lose weight.”

One issue is whether a given fitness tracker will work with your various phones, tablets and PCs. Although Lumoid isn’t renting Android Wear smartwatches at the moment, you can try out a Samsung Gear Fit, for instance, which only works with Samsung phones and tablets. Lumoid writes blurbs highlighting potential pitfalls using data garnered from user feedback, including information on device compatibility. A nifty side effect is that Lumoid gets a front row seat to collect data on which trackers are doing well and why.

wearables-lumoid-screenshot

“Users are saying ‘I can’t type with the Jawbone UP because it’s so bulky,'” Ramamurthy said. “So far, the it’s Fitbit Charge that has done really well for us in the beta.”

In many ways, Lumoid is simply selling fitness trackers online. That’s how the company plans to make money shipping wearable gadgets all over the country. Lumoid makes a similar margin to retailers like Best Buy and Amazon when a user decides to keep a device and pays for it.

The $20 rental charge is automatically deducted from your credit card when you ship your trackers back. If you try to keep all the trackers Lumoid shipped you, it can charge your card for the full retail value.

Lumoid, a San Francisco-based startup, first started renting gadgets  — specifically, cameras — in 2014. In November, the company launched Lumoid Locals in San Francisco, a marketplace that lets users rent camera equipment directly to other users.

Here’s the full list of fitness trackers Lumoid rents out:

  • JAWBONE UP24 Wristband
  • Withings Wireless Blood Pressure Monitor
  • Withings Pulse O2
  • Striiv Fusion Activity and Sleep Tracker
  • Garmin Vivosmart
  • Garmin Vivofit
  • Fitbit Flex
  • Fitbit Charge
  • Fitbit One
  • Nike+ Fuelband SE
  • Withings Pulse Wireless Activity Tracker
  • JAWBONE Up Move Activity Tracker
  • Misfit Shine
  • Fitbit Aria Wi-Fi Smart Scale
  • Withings WS-50 Smart Body Analyzer
  • Pebble Smartwatch
  • Samsung Gear Fit
  • Nike+ Ipod Sensor
  • LifeTrak Move C300
  • Gymwatch Sensor
  • Basis Peak

 

Fitbit’s heart rate–monitoring smartwatch goes on sale for $250

Two new Fitbit fitness trackers went on sale in the United States and Canada on Tuesday. Fitbit will start shipping its first smartwatch, Surge, which costs $249.95, and has built-in GPS for runners and an optical heart rate monitor, and can display notifications and control your phone in addition to fitness tracking. The Charge HR, also starting shipping today, is an updated version of the Charge wristband that includes its own optical heart heart rate monitor and costs $149.95. If you’ve already got a Fitbit and pick one of these new ones up, keep in mind that Fitbit is working on a way to sync multiple trackers to the same account — so eventually your extra Fitbit will be able to live in your gym bag.

fitbit-surge

Disclosure: Fitbit is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog.

Swarovski crystals make this Misfit fitness tracker sparkle

Most fitness trackers are meant to blend in, but if you’d like your wearable to stand out, Misfit has covered its flagship Shine tracker with a giant Swarovski crystal.

There’s one major new feature in the new trackers in the Swarovski Shine Collection. If you get the Shine covered with a purple Swarovski crystal, it’s actually hiding a solar panel that means the tracker never needs a battery replacement. The solar-powered tracker uses the Swarovski crystal to refract light directly onto the solar cell, according to Misfit. (If you get the Shine with a clear crystal, it will still need a battery replacement after four months.)

2253-8dd884de0669ee4e07c8673f031f19bc

[company]Misfit[/company] plans to sell the Swarovski Shines in a set that includes two accessories. The accessories are nice: You can choose from a bracelet covered in smaller crystals, a ropey band, and several pendants that allow the Shine to be worn as a necklace. The accessories will be compatible with the standard Shine and will be sold separately, too.

swarov_assets_1500x1030_set_slake_gray_1_1024x1024

A package with a Shine and accessories will cost between $170 and $250 when it goes on sale later this spring. Pre-orders are available now. The normal Shine, which costs $100, comes in 10 colors when it’s not covered in glass cut to look like diamonds. Misfit also sells a $50 fitness tracker, the plastic-covered Flash.

Sure, Swarovski’s glittery look might be too garish for some, but that’s fashion: Choices that work for some people will be a non-starter for others. For instance, Misfit’s rival Fitbit has a partnership with Tory Burch that hides its trackers inside bangles and jewelry. The question is when savvy consumers stop thinking of these kind of fashion collaborations as styled-up fitness trackers and instead consider them to be jewelry with a little bit of connectivity.

ces-2015-3

How to use a Fitbit with Apple Health

If you’ve got a Fitbit, and you use an iPhone, there’s a good chance you’d like to sync the stats from your Fitbit with the Apple Health app you’ve heard so much about.

There’s one well-known problem: Fitbit (see disclosure) doesn’t let its data sync with Apple Health. In fact, Apple Stores don’t sell Fitbit trackers anymore. But Apple Health integration is one of the most requested features on the Fitbit Forums — clearly, there is a large number of people who would love to use their Fitbit hardware with Apple software.

Why would you want to use Apple Heath?

That’s a good question! The Fitbit app and websites are pretty solid.

The main reason you’d probably want to employ this workaround is that you’re planning to purchase an Apple Watch when it launches sometime in early 2014 and you’d like a bit of continuity to your health stats. You might also prefer Apple’s interface to Fitbit’s.

You might also argue that if you own a Fitbit, you should own the data — not simply the ability to access Fitbit’s line of services.

The best workaround

You’ll need a $1.99 app called Sync Solver. You probably already have the Fitbit app on your iPhone.

sync solver

From there, it’s straightforward. First, sync the Fitbit app with your Fitbit tracker to get your data into the system. Then, open up Sync Solver. It will prompt you to import the data from your Fitbit app by logging in, and it will automatically sync it with the Apple Health app.

You need to approve both read and write privileges on the Sync Solver app. Sync Solver can help import steps, distance, sleep analysis, active calories burned, and weight from Fitbit.

sync solver message

One quirk is that the imported data in the Health app will have a Sync Solver icon next to it, as opposed to the Fitbit logo, but I haven’t noticed any problems with accuracy or missing entries.

sync-solver-in-health-2

Sync Solver isn’t perfect — it doesn’t have access to Fitbit’s Partner API, so it can’t do intraday syncing, and it’s unlikely to gain that ability because some of its features, like data exportation, compete directly with Fitbit’s premium subscriptions.

There are a few other apps for iOS specifically designed to bridge Fitbit and Apple Health. One is called Wristband Manager, but it doesn’t have nearly as many reviews as Sync Solver and it also costs $1.99. SyncFit promises to do the same thing for $0.99, but the reviews say it doesn’t work.

My Fitness Pal isn’t a workaround

Unfortunately, you can’t use a free app like My Fitness Pal as an Apple Health intermediary. It would seem as if you could — My Fitness Pal can receive data from a [company]Fitbit[/company], and it can also interface with Apple Health.

But the problem is that it won’t sync steps or miles logged to Apple Health. Some people, however, have reported that if you’ve got the Fitbit Aria scale, it’s possible to import that weight data into Apple Health through My Fitness Pal.

Double stepping

The most common problem that users face is that their steps are double counted. Because Health can use a newer iPhone as a step counter, sometimes when using a workaround [company]Apple[/company] Health will count both the steps from both the FitBit and your iPhone.

To fix this, navigate to Health Data > Fitness > Steps > Share Data in the Health App. In the corner, tap Edit and move Sync Solver up to the top of the list of Data Sources — which will prioritize it over the steps read by your iPhone.

prioritize-data

Finally, you have to sync manually or on a daily basis using these types of workarounds. It’s because these apps don’t have official Partner access to Fitbit’s API, and that’s unlikely to ever be granted because Fitbit not syncing with Apple Health is a business decision, not an oversight.

Go with another fitness tracker

Sometimes, it’s just not worth the effort to bend a product into working a way it wasn’t designed to work. It might be silly that Fitbit can’t sync with Apple Health (or Google Fit) but there are several trackers that do work with both. Jawbone’s UP line of wristbands can sync with Apple Health, and so can the Misfit Flash or Shine.

And finally, Fitbit’s software is pretty great and might be a better fit for you than Apple Health is at the moment. Fitbit’s app presents information in a way that’s easy to understand, and it’s got features for challenging you and helping you keep up with friends.

And if none of these workarounds work for you, the Apple Watch will be out before long, and that’s guaranteed to work well with Apple Health.

Disclosure: Fitbit is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog.

Jawbone’s nicest fitness tracker won’t be in homes for Christmas

It’s time to find an alternative Christmas present if you had your heart set on the UP3, the latest and greatest fitness tracker from Jawbone. The startup had implied holiday availability when it announced the $179.99 wristband tracker in November, but now it’s now slated for an early 2015 release, according to Wareable and Bloomberg. Although Jawbone still has its moneymaking Jambox speakers– as well as the new entry-level UP Move — on shelves this month, missing the holiday season is never a good sign for a consumer product.

Jawbone UP3

Jawbone UP3