One of the earliest uses of a wearable technology was recorded during Emperor Nero’s rule over the Roman Empire from 54 to 68 AD. A brutal leader, the emperor enjoyed watching his gladiators fight in crowded stadiums. As Nero watched his fighters battle, he was confronted with a problem – the glaring sun made it difficult to see. He was fashioned a pair of spectacles made out of a polished green gem to protect his eyes and to make it easier to watch the bloody fights unfold.
Fast forward to modern day and wearables look a lot different – from the FitBit to smart watches, wearables and digital health are ushering in an era of big data and personalized solutions to health problems.
Even though wearable technology has changed dramatically since Nero’s time, Lux Research analyst Noa Ghersin said at last month’s Medical Sensor Design Conference that the essence of a wearable device remains the same.
“Whether it has to do with augmenting our eyesight or augmenting our clinical decision making, the idea really was to augment the human,” she said.
After the 1st iPhone was released in 2007, Ghersin said digital health companies took advantage of the electronic components that were being cheaply made and started developing wearable devices designed to boost human health. In the last decade, consumers have seen the launch of devices like Google Glass, several different smart watches and devices to monitor your daily steps.
“But at the end of the day, what you’ll notice is that today’s most iconic wearables are at best crappier versions of a smart phone,” Ghersin said.
The Boston-based analyst pointed out that smart watch sales continue to miss expectations and that just earlier this year, shares in FitBit tumbled after the company slashed jobs and failed to meet sales estimates.
For companies to thrive in the wearable space, Ghersin advised them to follow Lux Research’s IOT Framework: sense, analyze and act. She outlined 3 case studies as examples of what to do – and what not to do – when developing a well-designed wearable.
Vert created a motion-sensor wearable designed to measure how high and how many times a person jumps. Primarily used by professional athletes, the device helps coaches understand which players are over-working themselves. It can also provide information to players to compare their performance to other players on the team.
But this wearable only senses – it doesn’t analyze or act. As of yet, it doesn’t alert the coach if someone is jumping too often or too high and it doesn’t tell the user if their motion is associated with any risk.
In her 2nd case study, Ghersin described SmartCap Technologies, a company designing a headband that captures EEG signal to warn users if they’re becoming fatigued or tired. The purpose of this product is to help prevent worker-related injuries due to fatigue, such as the type often sustained by truck drivers.
If the device senses that the user is becoming fatigued, it will alert the user. The act of sensing and analyzing data puts SmartCap one step ahead of Vert, but it still doesn’t address the “act” part of Lux’s IOT Framework. The company’s product doesn’t recommend what the user can do to perk themselves up and avoid fatigue.
For a device that satisfies all 3 categories of Ghersin’s framework, she introduced Upright Technologies – a wearable designed to alleviate low back pain through a 3-week training program. The product uses a motion sensor to detect slouching and incorrect posture. If it detects that the user is sitting incorrectly, the wearable alerts the user and tells them how to best correct their posture to avoid back pain.
When it comes to Lux’s IOT Framework, Ghersin explained, “the further downstream you go, the better, more valuable solution you’re going to be offering.”
A shift to sensing well will necessitate the development of new types of sensors, especially ones that take accurate and non-invasive measurements. More data from better sensors will also facilitate a need for stronger analytics.
But plenty of challenges remain in the wearable space, including one that Ghersin said is at the root of Fitbit’s problems: user retention.
“Helping users stick to their behaviors over a long period of time is a challenge on its own, and even the biggest of players in the digital health space have not been able to crack the code for this.”