Wearable technology catapulting health and fitness into future
Do you think your smartwatch, with its heart rate monitor, step counter, calorie tracker and message notifications, is impressive? You ain’t seen nuthin’ yet, according to Dennis Bonilla, executive dean at the college of information systems and technology at the University of Phoenix and a former vice president for Oracle.
“The wearable technologies we’re seeing on the market now are early, clunky versions of what’s coming soon,” Bonilla said. “In the future, your smartwatch will instantly access your medical records, diet and training logs, then sync them with sensors in the supermarket and mall to provide real-time shopping and health advice. Your smart shoes and biometric shirts will remind you to straighten your posture, hydrate and run and walk with correct form to protect your back and knees. A smart bandage will tell diabetics when their blood sugar is running low. Haptic technology will give you intimacy at a distance; when your wife on the phone 1,000 miles away squeezes her Fitbit, your Under Armour will tighten up.”
The wearables future is coming so much faster than most futurologists thought, and a couple of those items are already here.
“Wearables caught me by surprise because I didn’t think people would actually be using all the data they give you,” Ted Vickey, president of the fitness management consulting firm Fitwell, said at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas a couple of weeks ago. “I thought they’d be this generation’s Thighmasters — stuff you use for three months and put in the corner. But that’s not the case. Now there are more wearable buyers than there are fitness club memberships.”
The staying power of wearables is still debatable — another CES speaker, Digitaltrends.com Managing Editor Nick Mokey, said research shows that most people stop wearing them after three months.
But in just one year, companies selling wearables grew from a small aisle at CES to a quarter of the exhibit hall floor space, taken by the likes of Fitbit, Epson and Icon Health & Fitness. Lurking in everyone’s minds was the biggest name of all, the soon-to-be-released Apple Watch. No one is sure what it will do, but everyone expects it to take wearables into the stratosphere.
To do so, it will have to take analysis there too. “The next wave will be all about ‘actionable insights’: personalized instructions gleaned from all the information your wearable collects,” says Riaan Conradie, founder of LifeQ, a South African start-up that does just that through physiological monitoring and bio-mathematical algorithms.
Conradie’s not talking about “reactive” wearables that are extensions of your body, like the motion-sensing Visijax cycling jacket, which has a built-in LED turn signal that blinks when you raise your arm up to indicate you’re making a turn. He’s not even talking about the “immersive overlay system” of the ODG heads-up display glasses, basically a computer on your brow, which, like the projection glass screen seen in the 2002 Tom Cruise movie “Minority Report,” can project maps, directions and notices in front of you as you walk or drive. They’re a favored productivity tool for oil pipeline workers, among others. These are really no more than simplified versions of the robot suit that Robert Downey Jr. wears in the “Ironman” movies.
For instance: Do you have a high genetic probability of deep-vein thrombosis? Your wearable device, noting that you’ve been sitting too long, will remind you with a beep, buzz, vibration or loving voice that you need to get up and walk around. Do you tend to fall asleep on long drives? A next-generation wearable will figure out why you’re so fatigued behind the wheel and recommend ways to fix it.
Sharon Davie could have used the last product. It would have saved the 55-year-old retiree from St. Petersburg, Fla., a near-death moment and a six-month search for ways to stop it from recurring.
In late 2013, Davie fell asleep behind the wheel and woke up as her van was crawling up a concrete bridge railing 30 feet above the Gulf of Mexico. She’d been getting sleepy while driving for the last year, often aiming the air-conditioner full-blast at her face to stay awake. Now she urgently visited her doctor, who assumed she wasn’t getting enough sleep at night. Subsequent visits to a lung specialist, an MRI machine and an overnight sleep clinic proved only what she did not have.
Davie’s daytime sleepiness remained a mystery until March, when her husband bought her a $200 Basis Peak smartwatch ); the touch-screen device, which tracks heart rate, steps, motion, perspiration, skin temperature and sleep, won a 2014 CES award for being the only product to track sleep stages (light, deep and REM sleep). The morning after she first wore it, it reported that Davie was asleep only 43% of the 10 hours and 13 minutes that she was in bed and that she tossed and turned 35 times, which severely limited the deep sleep and REM that refresh body and mind. In 10 hours, she was effectively getting only 4.5 hours of true sleep.
But as smart as it was, the smartwatch only identified the problem; it was up to Davie to figure out why. When her research told her that sleep is mainly affected by diet and exercise, the daily runner homed in on her habit of watching “CSI” and movies two hours before bed while consuming coffee and chocolate. Apparently, the stimulants and urination that go with caffeine and sugar made her less able to get into deep sleep and REM. Davie cut out nighttime coffee and sweets and immediately got more sleep — 91% of the time that she is in bed (on Jan. 10).
The wearable allowed Davie to experiment on herself until she solved her own problem. But it couldn’t do what Davie did: correlate her sleep patterns to her diet. That would have solved her problem a lot faster.
“That’s the next step,” says Basis head of product development Ethan Fassett. “We’re working on it. Get back with me.”
Growing list of tech that gives you health and exercise feedback
“Wearable” has become a code word for a smartwatch or wrist-top tracker, but the term includes sports and medical products worn on other parts of the body as well as those that just touch it, like yoga mats and basketballs; call them “touchables.” Here’s a quick sample by sport, body part or tracking function.
Yoga and dance
• Smartmat uses pressure sensors to track a user’s position and suggest ways to move to achieve a perfect yoga position, which is simultaneously being shown on an iPad docked at the front of the portable mat.
• Phonotonic geodesic balls communicate musical instructions to a remote speaker only when you move them, allowing you to create your own music composition as you dance.
• 94Fifty is a basketball with a computer inside that counts baskets and gives form advice, such as increasing or decreasing your arc to achieve an ideal range, and bending your legs more to gain better lift.
• Smokio digital cigarette counts vaping inhalations, allowing vapers to know if they are curtailing tobacco intake.
• Gymwatch, a band affixed to the leg or forearm and synced with a cellphone app, is a pocket personal trainer that provides feedback on form.
Back — posture tracking
• Valedo strengthens the back by using a sticky back sensor and an on-screen avatar to track and correct your movements through 45 physical therapist-recommended exercises.
Calves — lactate threshold training
• BSX Insight lactate threshold sensor, used to provide an approximation of a blood-lactate test while running, cycling and other activities, holds a small optical pod (the size of a thumb drive) in place with a calf sleeve. A standard test involves a blood prick from the athlete’s finger and lab work.
Abdomen — blood sugar tracking
• Dexcom computes approximate blood sugar levels by drawing interstitial fluid (not blood) through an imperceptible needle inserted in a small, waterproof abdominal bandage that lasts a week. You read the data on an iPhone.
Feet — running form
• Sensoria Fitness Sock with textile pressure sensors that provide real-time feedback on cadence and landing pattern.
• Lechal running shoe insoles count calories, steps, distance, elevation and vibrate the right or left shoe to direct you on your programmed route.
• Altra will offer shoes outfitted with insole sensors that measure cadence, heel/forefoot landing, distance, speed and other data.
Head — impact assessment
• Linx and Marucci Boditrak (marucciboditrak.com) make sensor devices placed in football helmets via pods, headbands or skullcaps that count and measure impacts.