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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.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with that. The Couch-to-5K Running Plan and its associated mobile app, for example, have helped thousands of people successfully run their first 3.1-mile race. Few stop at one race. Many go on to discover, as I have, that running makes you a better person and introduces you to some amazing people.

Such plans, and their associated apps, thrive on data. Again, there's nothing wrong with that. It's just not a universal motivator.

Yes, I run for time to hit the goal pace on my training plan, to beat my personal best on race day and, in a sense, to slow down the inexorable march of time. I log my times, I think about my times and I train to improve my times.

I have other motives, though. I run to clear my head, to think and to challenge myself. Some of my proudest moments in the last few months weren't races but, rather, the days I braved the Polar Vortex, donning four shirts and two pairs of gloves for a 20-minute run in subzero wind chill just because I could. That can't be measured. (In fact, it couldn't be measured; my old watch, a relic I bought for $7 the day before my first marathon in 2001, froze on one of those cold January days.)

Data is important, but it can't and shouldn't define who we are.

Wearable Tech Can't Tell Us What We Don't Already Know
So what will get me to wear a fitness tracker? Simply put, I need a reason. So far, I haven't found a compelling one. (Neither, it seems, have the one-third of Americans abandoning wearables within six months of buying them.)

Some companies use fitness trackers for employee wellness, but those programs (rightfully) tend to target those who need that extra bit of motivation, not crazy people like me who willingly run in the cold, the heat and the rain. Plus, wellness programs can backfire if, say, they make it a little too obvious that they target employees who need to lose weight.

Health insurers are getting in on the action, too, partnering with wearable tech firms, wellness startups and other companies to provide a whole host of incentives to customers who link apps and devices to their insurance plans. Again, these (rightfully) target those who need a nudge, not people who already take the stairs and avoid the grocery store's middle aisles.

Healthcare providers have been slow on the uptake. There's much promise in sharing patient-generated health and wellness data with physicians, but it's mostly promise. Few patients have the time, resources or know-how to collect data, and few physicians have the time, resources or know-how to sift through the data that patients collect. Emerging consumer health apps may help, but they're just as likely to confuse.


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