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Wearable tech's dilemma: Too much data, not enough insight

Brian Eastwood | July 15, 2014
Analysts say as many as 130 million wearable tech devices will be sold by 2018. They promise to improve health, fitness and wellness. To have that impact, though, wearable tech must go beyond telling people things they already know.


When people learn that I run marathons in addition to covering healthcare IT, it doesn't take long for them to ask, "Where's your fitness tracker?"

It's a legitimate question. By all accounts, wearable tech is about to explode. Juniper Research expects 130 million devices to ship by 2018. IDC says it'll be closer to 120 million units, in part because most of the activity won't take place until 2016. Clearly, wearable tech is no gimmick.

By all accounts, it's a good thing, too. Generally speaking, the more people know about their own health and wellness, as measured by a device they often forget they're wearing, the better their chances of improving their health and wellness. Over time, this means fewer trips to the doctor, lower medical bills and, if all goes well, improved quality of life.

Today's Wearable Tech Complementary, Not Standalone
That said, I tend to disappoint people by pointing out that I don't wear a fitness tracker. Inevitably, they ask why.

Admittedly, it would make sense. Would my life be a little easier if a device automatically uploaded the time, distance, pace and per-mile breakdown of my runs to a Web service or the cloud? Wouldn't that be easier than writing the information my watch collects on a sticky note so I remember it when I plug it into dailymile?

Of course. However, I already own a GPS-enabled watch. Most runners do. (I've no hard evidence, but I have to look pretty hard to find someone toeing the line at a road race who isn't wearing a watch.) Most runners also run their watches into the ground, getting a new device only when the old one finally calls it quits. (Hey, when you also have to spring for shoes, clothes, race registrations, protein shakes and a bright yellow bib so cars can see you in the dark, you pay attention to the bottom line.)

Today's fitness trackers could complement my watch, measuring my heart rate and level of dehydration during a run as well as monitoring my sleep patterns so I do more than just "listen to my body" when I take an unplanned rest day.

The operative word there, though, is complement. No fitness tracker will replace my watch outright not unless it can display my pace, distance and elapsed time all at once, at a casual glance when there's sweat and sunscreen in my eyes, and do so for under $100. (Suffice to say the watches that do that and track various vital signs don't do so for under $100, either.)

Health and Wellness Is More Than Numbers
There's another factor at play here. Fitness trackers and apps typically target those who need motivation a badge for hitting mileage goals, a thumbs-up for eating right, a community of like-minded people who want to improve their health and, above all, a bit of guidance along the way.


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