Tracking Progress — Wearables in Review: The Meaning of Measurement

Though its basic concept can be traced back to ancient Rome, it’s Thomas Jefferson who is often credited with creating the first mechanical pedometer.

The problem is that it’s unknown whether the device he returned from France with in the 1780s was of his own making or something he’d purchased and modified. In any case, he chose never to patent his device and so it’s French watchmaker Abraham-Louis Perrelet — the guy who invented the self- winding watch — who is usually credited with inventing the mechanical pedometer in 1780.

The modern, electronic pedometer came a little over 200 years later, in 1985, with the tiny manpo-kei pedometers. Popular in Japan, they were tied culturally to research showing that walking 10,000 steps a day was key to maintaining a healthy body. In 2004, Japanese mobile operator NTT DoCoMo released the Pedometer Phone — a mobile phone that would also track the owner's steps throughout the day — and the pedometer moved into the mobile space. Two years later, Nike would partner with Apple to release the first generation Nike+ iPod Sports Kit consisting of, among other elements, a tiny pedometer mounted inside the sole of Nike running shoes. This marked the very beginnings of the modern activity tracking wearable.

From a conceptual point of view, the core functionality of the current generation of health and wellness wearable devices doesn’t deviate much from these previous products. They’re more accurate, they can measure things like elevation gain, some can tell if you’re walking or running, and a few add peripheral functionality like sleep tracking. Ultimately, though, they remain focused on the same idea as in 1985: walk 10,000 steps a day for better health. As much as this year’s CES would like us to think otherwise, this is not a new a concept.

Given this fact, one could be forgiven for viewing the current wave of activity tracking wearables as closer to the fitness trend of the moment than to some larger movement directed at changing our collective health through the merging of technology and the human body. These devices could easily be this year’s rollerblades, this year’s P90x, this year’s Jazzercize.

After all, if the manpo-kei pedometers didn’t catch on, and if Nike+ hasn’t got us all running, what is it about these devices that would change things?

And yet, whether it’s better design or better marketing, it’s hard not to feel like there is potential for something much bigger.

It’s just starting to snow as I head out to a local pub where I’m meeting an old friend for lunch. As I walk, I tabulate in my head how many steps I’m likely to have today.

A 4.5 mile run in the morning — that’s about 7,000 steps.

I parked a little farther from the office — maybe another 1,000.

I put my things down at my desk and make a separate trip for coffee rather than getting a cup on my way in — probably 500 steps.

By the end of the day, I figure I’ll hit around 13,000 steps. Is that enough to offset a veggie burger and fries?

Sitting in a dark green, low lit booth we talk family and then work, and at some point I mention my wearables research project. He looks at down at the Fitbit device I’m still wearing, months after we’ve finished our initial research, and asks:

“So, do any of them actually work? Like, would you actually go and buy one?”

The fly in the ointment for me in trying evaluate the promise — or even the potential promise — of these products is this: How to extricate the success of these devices independently of all the cultural hangups they seem to want to fix. While a digital camera can be judged on its sensor or ergonomics, or a laptop by its size, weight, or performance, the success of health tracking wearables is ultimately tied to things far beyond the control of the device itself.

It seems certain, for example, that at least some of the popularity of these devices is motivated by the same thing that has helped sell fitness fads for the better part of the last century: mass media’s unrealistic, yet persistent, image of the ideal human form. But if success for these devices is defined as achieving something those fads weren’t — actually changing the health of the people who buy them — then they’re also actively undermined by the same mass media’s insistence on selling us unhealthy food at nearly every turn. Cheese-stuffed pizza crust, anyone?

So, if we’re no better off at the end 2014 than we were at the end of 2013, is it a failing of the devices or of our culture?

Adding to the challenge is the success of marketing in general — we’ve been taught over the decades that we can buy our way into, or out of, nearly any problem. From light beer, to new clothes, to better smartphones, we’ve been taught that the point at which a problem becomes a solution is at the cash register.

The problem this poses for the health tracking wearable space is this: the success of the product ultimately resides in the user’s ability to change a lifestyle that they’re constantly told both must change and must not. And the change that needs to be made is not just for today, or tomorrow, or next month, but basically forever. That’s a tremendously high bar for any product to get over and probably explains why so many perfectly fine treadmills, pull up bars, and running shoes are gathering dust all over this country right now. We want to be better, we want to be fitter, but when I’m at Olive Garden, I’m family.

And besides, the skinny jeans trend has to end sometime, right?

I looked down at the black band around my wrist – the third device to reside there since we started this research.

“Are you asking would I buy one? Or do I think anyone should buy one?” I was stalling. Trying figure out a pithy answer to this question had taken up months of thought cycles and my feeling was that each time I approached it, I left further away than when I’d started.

Still, though all this cultural baggage is real and matters, it doesn’t get us any closer to answering that question: do any of these work?

If we try for a moment to just put all of the cultural stuff in a box, if we set aside whether any of these devices actually improves anything, and instead define “do any of these work?” in the simplest way possible, then there are, for me, two key elements. The first is the ability of the hardware to gather data. The second is the ability of the hardware/software system to deliver meaningful insight from that data.

Before any device can track anything, you have to want to wear it. Though each has its own look, all of the devices available today share basically the same aesthetic — something like “sports watch from the future”. Whether or not this is a problem is largely in the eye of the beholder, but there is no way to get around the fact that, with this current generation, you’re wearing athletic gear. For most people this is fine some of the time, and for a handful of people it's fine all of the time, but sitting in a meeting with clients in New York this January, surrounded by people in “grown-up” attire, I became very aware of my black rubber “future watch” and found myself pulling my shirt sleeve down just a bit. Perhaps it’s just my own insecurity, but for something I’m meant to wear 100% of the time, it’s a problem.

In an effort to address this, Pebble (not an activity tracker in its own right, but facing the same design/social cue problems) recently announced a new model designed with the style cues of more traditional watches. But their solution only further highlights another issue: a cargo cult-like approach to design which mimics many of the signifiers of traditional watch aesthetics without actually understanding why they’re there or what their function as a design element is. The result ends up a little like a kid in his dad’s suit: all the parts are there but none of them look quite right.

It seems that for now it’s “future watch” or nothing.

Still, for some people the design of the current devices isn’t a problem at all. If we’re honest about it, the days of needing anything more formal than athletic gear is waning, if not gone entirely. Further, for many people, this aesthetic is exactly the point. In a lot of ways these devices are the Kabbala bracelet for the fit crowd. An intentionally public display of their membership in a community devoted to tracking their activity and fitness.

But beyond the looks of wearables, there’s still the question of how well they gather data. Having looked at a good portion of the devices available today, it seems clear that hardware technology is no longer an issue, or at least that most devices offer parity in terms of sensors and tracking capability. They may display this information in radically different ways but, in the end, each device is about tracking steps — or at least movement — and they’re all reasonably good at it. If this is your definition of “work”, then the good news is that really any of the available devices will be just fine.

Then again, if simply measuring activity is what you’re after, you may not need a wearable device at all. That’s because even though the hardware is the most recognizable and marketable part of each wearable, it’s also becoming the least important part of the entire ecosystem.

Since Apple introduced the M7 motion co-processor in the iPhone 5s, the ability to track all the data we used to need a dedicated device for now resides in our pocket. If you have an iPhone 5s you can access this data now using apps like Moves, which can track not just steps but all of your movements throughout the day including travel by bike, bus, or car. While not specifically targeting the same space as the devices we tested, as a proof of concept it’s hard to ignore. In fact, at the end of our research Fitbit announced that they’d updated their own mobile app with an option to use just the app and M7 processor, albeit with limited functionality, no wearable needed.

Which leads back to the question of why wear anything at all? Excluding the people who want to wear them, if I have a device in my pocket that can track all my activity, why do I need a duplicate device on my wrist? Especially when the tracking on my smart phone is more accurate to boot.

Clearly there will always be situations where a wrist-worn device is preferred. For example, I will never run with my phone. It’s cumbersome to carry, uncomfortable to wear on my arm, and I just don’t like worrying that I’ll drop it, or smash it if I happen to trip. Really, any sporting activity is going to be a tough place to bring a phone, so there may always be a place for a dedicated wearable device here.

There are also a handful of devices that leverage their wrist-mounted status to track things like the wearer’s pulse, which is obviously still outside the capability of smart phones.

But these use cases remain pretty specific, and seem to fall outside the brand promise for nearly all of the devices we looked at — that these are “life” devices meant to be with you all day, every day. Sure they’ll track your runs, but they’ll also be there when you’re meeting with clients, grocery shopping, or sitting around watching TV. And ultimately it’s these situations, and people without a specific workout regimen, that stand to benefit most from access to this new data.

Perhaps, then, wrist-worn wearables are the MP3 player of a broad-based, quantified-life future; the thing that brings the concept into mainstream consciousness only to be superseded by a superior technology or subsumed into another product altogether.

The irony, it turns out, is that the saving grace for the companies making wearables now may ultimately come in the form of software. Even as the hardware to track our activities becomes commoditized, it turns out that collecting the data could actually be the least important aspect to building a truly transformative health and wellness tracking system.

I’m saved by the bell: before I can finish my dithering answer our lunch arrives and I enter into a social dance I’ve been dealing with since October.

“One second,” I say pulling out my iPhone, “I just gotta enter this stuff real quick.”

But I know from experience that it probably won’t be all that quick. Joe checks email on his phone and I get to work.

I’ve saved “veggie burger” from previous meals, and even though the only “veggie burger” in my app’s database is from Burger King, my hope is that it’s close enough. The Brussels sprouts I ordered instead of french fries are going to be trickier. I start to type “b-r-u-s-s” and I see a list with a couple dozen different options — all of them preset and none of them resembling the dish I have in front of me. I make a mental note to come back to this later.

“Sorry," I say, putting my phone back in my pocket. “I have this program going on my Fitbit and I need to enter everything I eat. It’s a pain.”

For now, it seems that just the ability to get live data displayed in a nice chart seems to be enough to sell a device, but it became clear over four weeks of research that it’s not enough to keep someone using that device for more than a couple weeks. The problem comes down to understanding the difference between data and information.

While activity tracking is important, the reality is that its emphasis in current generation devices is simply a byproduct of the fact that it’s easy to collect. For someone looking to make a significant change in their weight or health, things like what and when a person eats, when they’re active, or how they sleep, are all at least as important as steps taken, if not more so.

Sadly, as easy as step tracking is, nutrition tracking is the opposite — exceptionally difficult and so poorly implemented as to be basically unusable for all but the most dedicated. And though some of our devices tracked sleep, the data they provided was muddy at best and often simply inaccurate.

But these are tactical problems, fixed by things like better interface design. The issue that ties all these devices is more fundamental: an inability to provide meaningful narrative from collected data. The path for a product to becoming a critical, long-term part of someone’s life is the ability to solve some human-level problem. In the case of the health and wellness tracking space, that problem is that even as we have access to more and more data about what we’re doing, we have little insight into what any of it means. It’s data, but it’s not information.

What I’m doing, what I’m eating, how I’m sleeping, where I’m spending my time, who I’m spending it with, how much time I spend working versus watching a movie with my family — all of this is collectable data, and each part of it tells a bit of the story of my health. But understanding how they all interconnect is the issue. Data for data's sake is a short-lived novelty. The next step for any product in this space is to help us understand the data, to take these charts and show us relationships between data points that we might have missed otherwise. If I’m not sleeping well, why? Why am I working out everyday but not seeing results? Do I run faster the day after I eat pizza for dinner?

But that’s just showing me where I am now. The ability of these systems to use collected data to help a person develop achievable short- and long-term goals — to effectively project where I could be in the future — will be a huge factor in that person's ability to see the change that defines the promise of those devices. The ability to use all this collected information to adapt to each person and their lifestyle, to become that personal trainer that knows you, your life, your goals, your limits, that will be the difference between a forgotten Christmas gift and something that becomes part of their everyday life.

“So you’re asking would I buy one?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, I mean, here’s the thing: I already have a watch with GPS to track my runs. I have Moves installed on my phone and that tracks all my steps each day. So I don’t really need the device. What I need is something that’s going to tell me what to do with all this. And really, I think that’s what most people really want out of this. It’s like ‘just please tell me what I should be doing to be a little better.’”

I nod down at my Fitbit.

“And the thing is – this thing only just barely does that. I mean, if I’m being honest, if it weren’t for the food tracking I’m not sure what else I’d need it for. And the food tracking is awful. It’s really bad. But if I do it, it tells me how much I can eat each day.”

I start cutting my non-Burger King veggie burger in half.

“I mean, would I tell someone else to buy one though? That’s tough.”

If one were to plot the current generation of these devices on a the Gartner Hype Cycle, it seems certain that we’re approaching the peak of “Inflated Expectations” and, in the short term, I suspect we’ll see these devices fall into that valley as people begin to realize that wearing a wrist band isn’t making them any healthier.

This failure is most likely one of marketing. The industry mantra “you can’t change what you don’t measure” fails to mention that the “measuring” part is the easier of the two. You still need to change something.

If and how health and wellness tracking climbs out of that valley most likely depends on how we define them culturally. Are they tools designed to count steps and calories and hours asleep as abstract data points? Or are they here to help us solve a cultural problem we’ve been spinning our wheels on since the 1960s? Are these products designed to change behavior or to act as a digital diary of a behavior already being changed? While the current generation seems to be closer to the latter, it’s the promise of the former — a system that doesn’t just record, but learns and projects into the future — that seems like the technological holy grail: technology that makes us better humans.

It’s snowing a little harder as I walk back to work and I keep my hands in the pockets of my coat. At right about the half way point I feel a startling and then familiar buzz on my wrist. My Fitbit is telling me I’ve walked 10,000 steps today.

I need to remember to enter those Brussels sprouts.

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