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How to fix the wearables industry

By Jen Quinlan / March 31, 2014

How to fix the wearables industry

The wearables revolution is only just beginning, and we’re already seeing large brands, start-ups, tech companies and consumer goods manufacturers alike jumping on the fitness-tracker bandwagon. For a lot of these aspiring innovators, just launching a wearables product is “enough” to make money and garner some buzz around the Internet. However, they better have a clear refund policy. As the Samsung Galaxy Gear demonstrated, there will be returns if consumers find their offerings lacking. How can new entrants make sure their product impacts lives in meaningful ways, rather than making users go out of their way to get their money back?

Improve the accuracy

Let’s face it. Most wrist wearables on the market today are just fancy pedometers. They count your steps, track your calories and occasionally let you know how well you slept. Most of them don’t even tell you the time. Worst of all, their early-stage algorithms are rarely accurate. As a matter of fact, I caught my Fitbit Force in a fib just this morning. After consciously counting the 20 steps it takes for me to get from my bed to my bathroom sink, I glanced down at my wrist to find my screen telling me I just took 100 strides.

In Fitbit’s defense, what they lack in accuracy they make up for in precision. My nightly numbers are a fair representation of how active I’ve been on any given day. For example, on days when my “exercise” is limited to walking around the office, my stats are noticeably lower than the days when I go to the gym. If you’re looking for a precise interpretation of your physical exertion, these first-generation devices may be all you need.

However, this type of experience can frustrate users who are trying to achieve specific distance goals. Even the Fitbit software motivates folks to walk 10,000 steps a day, but what good is that benchmark if it only takes me 2,000 actual steps to reach it? The gamification of fitness is nice, but if there aren’t hard numbers behind it, the product will be mothballed — thrown in my closet to the land of misfit tech toys from the days of yore.

By the end of 2014, I hope to see consumer advocacy groups that help assess and score these products for accuracy. Taking the manufacturer’s word for it — like Fitbit, who claims, “We’ve done multiple internal studies” — is only going to keep the technology stagnant. I’m also hoping for a Bazaarvoice-style rating system for all wearables that aggregates true user feedback across a multitude of products and parameters.

Crunch the numbers

Like bets? In late 2013, Under Armour placed one to the tune of $150M on the Austin-based activity tracker, MapMyFitness. Why the hefty investment? Under Armour believes the tons of data generated by wearable devices will turn into an even greater number of revenue streams. But before that information can shine like a diamond, they’ll need software and products that can chip away the uncertainty surrounding these precious statistics.

Sure, wearable companies can make money in the short-term by selling hardware (if the customer doesn’t return it), but they’ll never reach long-term success if they don’t figure out a way to keep their users engaged. That could be why Under Armour decided to run with MapMyFitness. Since 2007, MapMyFitness has been maintaining the interest of runners and bikers by providing them valuable information like their mileage, favorite routes and applaudable achievements. In less than a decade, MapMyFitness has attracted over 20 million subscribers using around 400 different devices. Now all Under Armour has to do is turn that into profit.

While most wearables have APIs for developers to tinker around with, we have yet to see a middle layer or platform emerge that takes the data from wearable devices and interprets it for the fitness enthusiast. Fitbit tells me I need to walk 10,000 steps a day, but what does that mean? Once this middle layer is established, we’ll see a surge of software that breaks down the statistics gathered by wearables like some kind of a virtual life coach. Users will no longer have to decipher the numbers themselves, and for that, they’ll be willing to pay a pretty penny.

Wearables for all shapes, sizes and skin tones

While attending the Wearable Tech Expo last December, I chatted with Robert Lawless, an engineer at Huawei Devices USA, about the LEDs found in more premium wrist-wearables like Oxitone. According to Oxitone:

“Red and infrared [LED] light propagating through the tissue is being partially absorbed and can be measured by a detector. The amount of absorbed light depends on the instantaneous blood volume which changes with each heartbeat.”

Lawless contended there is a big difference between green and red LED lights for heart rate monitors. The Green LED wavelength (~490-560nm) shows decreased modulation in people with darker skin hues, resulting in inaccuracies in measurements. The Red LED wavelength (~635-700nm) doesn’t have this problem. Therefore Green LED solutions, like the ones found in the Basis Fitness Tracker, must account for this weakness or they could have difficulty getting accurate HRM measurements through dark skinned people.

It’s also important for wearable device manufacturers to consider the variety of body types around the world. The CDC estimates that 1/3 of all Americans are obese. While a Fitbit Force comes in two sizes, does the large size fit plus-sized wrists as well? And once they start losing weight, does it offer enough flexibility to adapt to their smaller wrist size? 33% of all Americans or 104 million people sounds like an addressable market to me.

There are also 79 million boomers in this country. Have you ever seen an older person with arthritis try to put on a watch or bracelet? Product designers for wearables need to think beyond designing for themselves and consider the needs of other segments that are sizable enough to generate profit. For Boomers, consider a design they can pull on like a sweatband or something that easily pulls apart like the Jawbone Up.

With the wearables market still in its infancy, there’s plenty of room for improvement across the industry. As the accuracy, analytics and hardware behind these devices continues to mature, we’ll start to see people of all shapes, sizes, colors, ages and credos proudly wearing their fitness trackers on their sleeves. Until then, us early adopters will just have to suffer through some growing pains with the manufacturers.

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