The Next Step for Wearable Tech

Wearable technology has been receiving a lot of attention in the press lately.

ThinkstockPhotos-126914550Just last month, FitBit—by far, the current leading provider in the field of tracking devices—scored a major client win when Target announced it would be giving its 335,000 employees a free Zip, the firm’s clip-on device retailing for around $60. Wall Street apparently was pleased by the news: FitBit’s stock price jumped as much as 22 percent following the announcement.

So I guess it isn’t terribly surprising to see wearable technologies quite visible at this week’s Benefits Forum & Expo in Orlando, Fla. Right?

Just a few steps away from the conference registration desk, FitBit employees were distributing complimentary devices to attendees who agreed to sign up for a charity competition. (Full disclosure: I picked up my first tracker on Wednesday, strapped it on my wrist and joined a team designated “MS Mercenaries,” though I’m clearly not contributing to our tally sitting here writing this post.)

I probably should also mention that FitBit did a similar competition at our Health & Benefits Leadership Conference last year and will be doing it again later this month at our HR Tech Conference.

I also counted at least three sessions dedicated to the wearables topic on the opening day of the Benefits Forum.

One of those sessions, titled “Wearables: A Believable Future or a Passing Fad,” featured David Spierer, president of human physiology at Wellness Science LLC, a New York-based data-intelligence company that focuses on wearable-tech validation.

Spierer shared his insights and perspectives on the phenomenon, including some of the drawbacks employers ought to factor in as they evaluate and implement these devices in their organizations.

Sustainability and accuracy continue to be two major hurdles facing device makers, he said.

According to Spierer, wearables have a life span of about five-and-a-half to six months before the novelty wears off and they end up in a drawer, he said. Either that, he said, or they break.

Still, the appetite for these devices is unarguably huge. Spierer said they’re shipping at a rate of more than 21 million units a year—and some predict that number could rise to 150 million a year by 2018. So people clearly want them!

Spierer also emphasized the need for better validation.

He specifically pointed to manufacturers’ claims that these devices can measure calories, when the only way to accurately measure caloric expenditures is to wear a mask. “Carbon dioxide, oxygen and nitrogen have to all be measured in order to get a true reading of caloric expenditure,” he said. “These devices just do an estimate.”

Yet despite such limitations, Spierer predicted that further innovation lies ahead for the technology and the future is promising.

By integrating the sensors with a complete system, he said, people will be able to do exercises at home and then send that information to their physician.

Spierer also predicted that the devices are going to become increasingly “invisible” and “personalized,” citing companies that have already added them to their clothing and are incorporating them in jewelry such as earrings.

He also expects the technology to get a lot smarter. “They’re going to be context-driven,” he said. “They’re going to know when it’s raining, what holiday it is [and] what your routine is during the day.” And they’re going to start to talk to other devices (for instance, the wearable on your wrist will be able to talk to your phone in your pocket).

“How great would it be if you were walking home with your groceries, the wearable senses your heart rate is going up, the smart lock on your front door opens … and because your sweating, your air conditioning goes on?” he asked.

I’d say pretty great—especially on a day like today, when temperatures in Orlando reached around 90 degrees.