Every once in a while, I think of popular ideas in terms of “What would VH1 do with it?” I wonder that when the cable channel eventually does its I Love the 2010s show, how will they look at things we find worth our time today? And, of course, it’s real easy to do that with tech, especially wearables. I mean, if our future is indeed continued human-small device interaction (and that is arguable), wearables seem inevitable. But it seems real easy for pop culture comedians to make fun of how we do it these days: strapping sensors on our wrists. There are a few ways to approach this idea with skepticism. First, that the data is even that valuable. Does my sleep patterns, steps taken, and heartbeat over weeks, months, or years matter that much? Certainly in the doctor’s office, they spend the least amount of time on my pulse and are fine with single-word answers to their question, “How are you sleeping?”. Again, continuing in that skeptical vein, it’s real easy to paint these health-tracking wearables as a way for device makers who’ve hit the wall on phone technology to sell us something new. But a bigger problem that is becoming more and more talked about is the accuracy of these devices in the first place. Like this recent MIT Technology Review piece:
Results varied, and sometimes they varied a lot. The [Microsoft] Band’s average heart-rate measurements were consistently closer to the results of the Polar chest strap—sometimes within a beat or two per minute, but they could be as many as 13 beats off. The Apple Watch, meanwhile, gave readings as many as 77 beats per minute different from the Polar device. Measurements of calories burned (something all three bands, including the Up3, track) were also somewhat inconsistent; on one morning commute, for instance, they ranged from 143 to 187.
And it’s not a rare view. The doubt is happening everywhere, enough so that these fitness device makers are already spinning it, that it’s not about accuracy, it’s about health engagement.
Even analysts are jumping in on the doubt-fest:
Global research and advisory firm Forrester Research thinks that wearables will go the way of ”the Flip camera or the single-purpose e-reader,” according to Re/Code, meaning they will grow in popularity for a few years before petering out. While some technology, like smartphones, are able to gain true ubiquity, some believe that wearable tech is not likely to do the same.
The problems with these health-tracking wearables is manifold, that they are mass-marketed devices for people who aren’t mass-marketed, that the range of data they can track is too tiny to deliver any worthwhile conclusions about our overall health, that the technology just isn’t there yet for any meaningful data.
So, basically, the chances of an aging Hal Sparks comparing Fitbit to the copper bracelets of yore seems more and more like how it’ll go.