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Why the Promise of Wearable Technology Lies in the Data

Update 11/19: It’s been interesting to see that since we published this piece, a sense persists that tech companies are more interested in developing wearables than consumers are in buying them. This recent article from The Economist has an interesting take, arguing that the challenge for wearables is the absence of a “killer app”. However as in our article below, they highlight the potential that wearable tech data has to transform public health.

“Clinical trials could become cheaper and more accurate if drugmakers give wearable monitors to the patients taking part. Hospitals and doctors’ surgeries could use such monitors to reduce the need for home visits.”

It’s difficult to overstate how quickly the wearable tech space is growing; after all, how many of your friends wear FitBits, use Garmins on their runs, or tap their Apple Watches to quickly check an email. In fact, the wearable technology industry is projected to see a 34% compound growth rate through 2020. However, as sophisticated as wearable technology may seem today, the industry still hasn’t really lived up to its hype. In fact, wearable technology sees a 30% return rate and high product abandonment after six months.

So where can wearable technology turn to achieve its full potential? The answer is in the data these devices make available. This goes far beyond the individual data that people like to track and share with their friends (such as how many steps they’ve walked per day). Instead, the data collected from wearable technology has a chance to make the biggest impact in the medical and public health fields. Wearable technology gives individuals access to a vast array of data, from heart rate to calories burned and more. This same data could revolutionize the healthcare industry, sending medical data to researchers, doctors, nurses, and pharmacies in order to better serve the individual.

With over ninety years of experience in data logging and monitoring in the healthcare industry, Dickson has seen firsthand the impact that data can have on an individual’s life; our data loggers are used for everything from helping grow tomatoes in a vertical farm to ensuring that highly perishable vaccines are stored in the appropriate conditions. The data gleaned from wearable technologies has the potential to help millions of people when used within the healthcare and medical industries. Here’s a look at the current landscape of wearable technologies, the limitations the industry faces, and the possibilities that exist in the data.


Putting the growth of the wearable technology industry in perspective.
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The Wearable Technology Landscape

The most immediately available examples of wearable technology are mostly found on your wrist: smart watches, fitness trackers, and sports watches. However, wearable technology isn’t relegated to your wrist; in fact, it can be on any part of your body, from head to toe and even under your skin. Here’s a brief overview of the current genres of wearable technology:

  • Smartwatches: devices worn on your wrist that connect to a mobile phone and act as a miniaturized version of the connected mobile platform, such as the Apple Watch.
  • Fitness trackers: devices worn on your wrist or clipped to your belt that are most commonly used as pedometers, such as the Fitbit; however, newer models contain heart rate monitors and the ability to measure calories burned as well.
  • Sports watches: a combination of smart watches and fitness trackers, sports watches such as the Garmin Forerunner typically include a GPS system to track your running and/or cycling route.
  • Head Mounted Display (HMD): a fairly new area in wearable technology, the HMD is worn on the head or as part of a helmet and shows a computer generated image, live images from the real world, or a combination of both; the most notable examples are Google Glass and Oculus Rift (note that Google recently took their Google Glass prototype off the market but says they are still developing the product).
  • Smart clothing: clothing that either contains some sort of electronic device that contributes to the aesthetics of the clothing or that appears otherwise normal but contains devices that give the clothing additional functionality. One example is Sensoria, a run-tracking sports sock gives runners information on pace, distance, time, and running style.
  • Smart jewelry: similar to smart watches, smart jewelry uses the same technology combined with a different aesthetic. Tory Burch has paved the way for the intersection of designer fashion and fitness trackers with her line for Fitbit.
  • Implantables: currently uncommon and confined mostly to the medical field (for example, implantable birth control), implantable technologies are placed beneath the skin and used for everything from magnetic fingertips to identification.

The wearable technology industry is projected to see a 34% annual compound growth through 2020, which is no surprise when you consider that recent studies have shown that the use of health and fitness apps is growing 87% faster than the mobile industry average.

While price is a major motivator for people buying wearables (one study found that the most interest was generated by a price point between $201-300), the biggest categories for wearables currently are in the health and fitness areas, showing that consumers are interested in tracking their fitness.

In 2014, the top 20 wearable tech companies included several big names (Google, Johnson & Johnson, Samsung, and Sony) and notable fitness tracking companies (such as Fitbit, Garmin, Jabra, and Jawbone) as well as companies that had previously only specialized in athletic apparel (such as Adidas and Nike). Of course, this was before the Apple Watch was released. While exact numbers of Apple Watches sold haven’t been released yet by Apple, it was estimated that they sold as many as one million units during their first pre-order weekend. Current estimates place sales at around 14 million units sold by the end of the fiscal year in September.

While the wearable technology industry is expected to continue its impressive growth, there are still limitations to the current technology and common flaws that contribute to high abandonment rates.


The Limitations of Wearables

You may recognize it as “shiny toy syndrome”: children get a new toy and excitedly play with it obsessively for a short period of time until they ultimately get tired of the toy and it falls by the wayside with the rest of their abandoned playthings. Unfortunately, the same principle often occurs with wearable technology; in fact, research shows that wearable technology has a 30% return rate and high product abandonment after six months.

While around 10% of Americans over the age of 18 own an activity-tracking wearable device, 40-50% claim that they no longer use it, and most tend to abandon the device within about six months. But why?

Studies are few and far between, but some theories suggest that the high return and abandonment rates can be attributed mostly to aesthetics and perceived common flaws. Since wearable technology is inherently wearable, the design and aesthetics of wearable technology are crucial to getting people to buy and use the devices. As Bill Geiser of Metawatch points out, “If nobody wants to wear it, is it really wearable?”

Wearables are also often perceived to have some common flaws that lead to abandonment. For example, many believe that wearables are easy to lose, breakable, not waterproof, difficult to sync with a smartphone, ugly, uncomfortable, and more. Users are also concerned with low battery life; after all, if you have to recharge a device every eight hours, it’s not a convenient or useful device. Even if the specific device being used doesn’t have that common flaw, users who believe that it does are much more likely to abandon the product.

Aside from perceived limitations, the actual limitations of wearable technology range from design to privacy issues. For example, HMDs such as Google Glass may have a flawed design that contributes to its slow reception, with its asymmetry driving away consumers. Other consumers are concerned that their wearable technology isn’t secure and private and that their private data is at risk for identify theft or other forms of misuse. Finally, while the small size of wearable tech is an appealing part of its design, miniature screens make it impractical for users to type messages or do other tasks that would be much easier on a phone; the catch-22 is that few consumers would want to buy a piece of wearable technology that’s as large as a smartphone.


Is wearable technology just hype, and do they help the people who really need them?
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Behind the hype of wearable tech – why are products so frequently returned and abandoned?

Wearable technology companies are already being proactive about overcoming these limitations. Modwell, for example, makes an activity tracker in the shape of a tiny disc that attaches to the inside of clothing; hideable technology is popular with users since it can easily be included in the design of any outfit.

Wearable technology is also becoming more peripheral. Previously, you had to look at wearable technology in order to interact with it, much like you would a smartphone. Now, however, companies are working on making wearable technology less intrusive and more integrated with users’ everyday activities, such as GPS shoes that use lights to indicate the direction a runner should go.

Companies are working to improve the screens on wearable technology, and they’re also experimenting with ways to disconnect wearables from other devices such as smartphones while still retaining full functionality. Experts believe that this detachment will help wearables become a valuable technology on their own rather than just fun gadgets to use with your smartphone.

While wearable technology companies work to address these limitations, the true potential of wearable technology lies within an untapped connection: data and the medical and public health industries.

The Big Data Possibilities of Wearable Technology

Currently, wearable technology is used mostly by individuals and in conjunction with the fitness tracking industry. Users appreciate the ability to quantify their every movement, adding to their collection of personal data and striving to beat their records and improve different aspects of their health.

The personal data that wearable technology makes available.

However, wearable tech’s applications have the potential to make a profound impact in the medical communication and medical monitoring fields.  For example, devices used for medical communication today are moving from simply alerting authorities to someone’s need from help (such as with a device like Life Alert) toward allowing direct communication between the wearer and a medical professional, using a concept similar to a button patients would use in the hospital to alert a nurse.

Wearable tech companies are searching for ways to sell the data that they gather and store from their devices, and the medical and public health fields are ideal fits for that data. The medical and public health fields are moving away from recording charts on paper and writing physical prescriptions for patients; instead, nearly 66% of physicians today would prescribe an app to help patients manage chronic diseases, while 79% of physicians and nearly 50% of consumers believe that using mobile devices can help physicians better coordinate care.


The public health and healthcare possibilities of wearable tech data.
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“The people who could most benefit from this technology- the old, the chronically ill, the poor- are being ignored.” The point that this article makes is an astute one; additionally, more than half of wearable technology uses and stores data which is not regulated by a user agreement. Therefore, the data could be sold and distributed without the user’s consent or knowledge, whether it’s activity data, movement data, or medical data.

Meanwhile, prototypes in the medical monitoring field are still being developed. Currently, they are most often used to transmit data from a patient to medical professionals, especially following the patient’s release from a hospital environment. Medical monitoring devices can do anything from measure heartrate or swelling to diagnosing potential problems from sweat or blood. Examples of prototypes in development include shirts and underwear that can monitor the chemical composition of sweat, and wristbands which can take and use a single drop of blood to record and transmit information about the patient’s health.

Some current applications of the intersection of data and health services:

  • Using wearable technology to determine insurance rates on a daily basis rather than just once a year.
  • io, an app that can alert a provider if something is “off” and may signal a potential depressive or manic episode based on how much the patient moves or how many people they’ve talked to that day.
  • ResearchKit, an Apple innovation geared towards using various features already included in the iPhone and other Apple devices for medical research.
  • iTBra by Cyrcadia, a “smart bra” that uses built-in sensors to track breast health by monitoring the conditions and rhythms observable in breast tissue to alert for the possibility of cancer (it’s been tested so far on 500 patients, with an 97% success rate)

The amount and type of data that wearable technology tracks is a natural fit for the medical and public health industries. Fitness and activity trackers have only begun to scratch the surface of how wearable technology can improve the health of their users, and as wearable technology continues to develop, these industries will continue to invent new ways to use their powerful data for the greater good.