2014, the year of Wearable Technology
In 2013 some prominent bloggers proclaimed 2014 as the Year of Wearable Technology. They proved right: the Consumer Electronica Show in Las Vegas, last February, showed an explosion of wearables: smartwatches, activity trackers and health monitors. Now, there are even more. Let’s take stock.
Whereas a couple of years ago Fitbit, Jawbone and Nike Fuelband dominated the consumer market of activity trackers, these days all big players (Apple, Google, Samsung, Philips, IBM, Sony, Microsoft, etc) are working with wearable technology. You could say that wearable technology has outgrown the stage of being just a fun gadget, it’s become booming business, with the uncrowned king being the not yet released Apple Watch.
An increasing number of start-ups have emerged, and no longer just in Silicon Valley, but everywhere in the world. Right now there are dozens of products on the market, usually with a cost price of approximately €100, but due to market forces and cheap production in China, one can purchase an activity tracker for only €30.
Which one should I choose?
With so many trackers available it can be hard to decide which one works for you. “Which one should I choose?” is a question often asked. Our primary answer to that question is a new question in return: “Why do you want to have one? What do you want to do with it? What do you need it for?”. Your personal motive is leading in making the decision which wearable you should purchase. Self-tracking is not about measuring simply to measure, but about gaining knowledge about you. And that starts with a personal question you wish to answer by means of a tool, which could be a wearable.
Are you simply curious? Try something that’s easy to use and is not too expensive. Or borrow one from someone you know. But, be careful with your expectations. Peter van Ammelrooy, Editor Technology of De Volkskrant, a Dutch newspaper, published a two-page article this past summer about how unbearably ugly and moderate he felt about a number of wearables. Which is quite logical, considering he was just trying without having a genuine underlying question. He was running tests seemingly without knowledge of the product technology (see below). Therefore, to avoid disappointment, it is important to clearly envision your motives. Besides that, it is advisable to not overestimate the device and to realise how exactly the technology in the device works.
Activity trackers are basically accelerometers
Most activity trackers are accelerometers; they measure an acceleration in space. If you know this, you’ll understand why it matters where on your body you wear the device. An accelerometer can most accurately measure walking behaviour when worn at the torso: so on your chest (bra or chest pocket), your hip (belt or pants pocket) or your upper arm. Wearables fitting this category are Fitbit Zip/One, Withings Pulse, BodyMedia and Misfit Shine. Most wearables, however, are made as a bracelet (Fitbit Flex/Charge, Nike Fuel+ Band, Jawbone UP, Sony Smartband and many others) or watch (LG G Watch, My Basis, Apple Watch). A sensor located at your wrist will register your movements when walking, but only when you make a distinct arm swing while walking.
This makes these wearables generally much less accurate. When you gesticulate, the sensor will also register movement. Which is convenient when you also want to measure dishwashing, painting etc. as a movement, but less convenient when you make many unintended arm movements. While choosing a certain activity tracker, you should ask yourself a couple of questions: “Where do I want to wear it?” and –closely related- “Which activities do I mainly want to monitor?” If, for example, you’re a swimmer, you will have to choose a waterproof device like the Misfit Shine, or similar.
Do you want to gain insight in your lifestyle or the amount of movement in particular, for example to improve your sports performance? You should purchase something in the middle range, €60.- to €150,-. These are the most often sold kinds of activity trackers. Fitbit, Jawbone and Nike were with 97% market leaders in 2013, with Fitbit (68% of the market) in the absolute forefront (source: mobilhealthnews). We found Nike’s activity tracker to be not so accurate (research will be published spring 2015).
Something of particular importance in the Netherlands is the question whether the wearable will also track activities such as cycling. Because, cycling is still something a lot of our fellow countrymen do very often. Most activity trackers are not suited to measure cycling, even though the developers claim it. This is because the technology was built to measure acceleration of a body part, something that generally doesn’t happen very often during cycling. Exactly like when you’re traveling by car, bus or train – and that’s a good thing, otherwise that would be measured as movement as well. For every advantage there’s a disadvantage.
If you do want to measure cycling activity, you’d better wear a sensor on your leg, for example Active Pal. Or put your tracking device deep into you jeans pocket or use an app, like Runkeeper or Strava. These apps work with gps and measure the amount of time used to complete a certain route.
Taste, quality and fun
Besides these technological and substantial considerations, there are obviously also personal preferences to take into account: how much money do you want to spend and what do you think is nice-looking? A wearable is after all also an expression of taste or preference for a certain quality. And it is of course important to have some fun with it. Therefore we can expect a lot from the fashion and clothing industries. The first signs are already here, with so called “smart T-shirts”. And since the miniaturization is still ongoing, smart earrings and other jewellery decorated with technology are just a matter of time. Which won’t make it easier to make a choice.