For Valentine’s day this year, my wife got us his and hers Jawbone UP fitness trackers. But being the technology rebel that I am, I carry a Windows Phone. Unfortunately the Jawbone lacks any app support for my platform of choice.
And so I found myself (after writing just a few short months ago that 2015 was definitely NOT the year that wearables were going to change everything) researching everything that I could find on wearables in order to pick just the right fitness tracker for me.
As I dove in, I quickly became fascinated by the design tradeoffs of each device. As the Product Owner for our development organization at Geonetric, I invest a lot of time determining what feature or product enhancement to build in VitalSite next, and understand the difficulties inherent in the task. You can’t put everything you’d like into a given release, and you need a relentless focus on delivering the features and capabilities that provide the most value. Based on what I’m seeing in wearable devices, the manufacturers are faced with the same challenges. The result is a range of devices that serve opposite ends of the market. At one end are the minimalist devices, and at the other, the more robust smartphone extenders.
The minimalist offerings come from Fitbit, Jawbone and others. These are essentially sophisticated pedometers. The key sensor package consists of an accelerometer used to measure your movement. Software on your computer or smartphone (not necessarily mine) interprets the accelerometer data and extrapolates the wearer’s number of steps, overall activity, distance traveled, calorie burn and sleep quality. Some of those measures are more approximated than calculated, but if you’re primarily measuring your progress relative to your personal past performance, that’s probably close enough.
Initially, the audience for these devices was mostly active fitness types eager to quantify and track their efforts. As costs have come down and promotion from insurers and corporate wellness initiatives have blossomed, we now see many people using them to track a more routine daily activity level. In support of this, features designed to motivate wearers to get up and get moving have become standard fare. But do any of the minimalist devices stand out?
Beyond online reviews, I spoke with a friend who is the founder and CEO of NextStep.io, a startup that uses data from wearables for virtual fitness coaching. Because of his business, he wears every fitness tracker imaginable up and down both arms. If anyone knew which tracker had a clear advantage, it would be him. When I asked him which wearable was best, he said that they are all far from perfect, but most are ‘passable.’
While this is clearly not a ringing endorsement of any specific device, nor of minimalist devices in general, neither is it a blanket condemnation of this class of fitness trackers.
And that’s pretty much the conclusion I came to as well: passable, not great. Perhaps, just good enough. But one design decision amongst some of the products in this class did stand out: though often worn on the wrist (like a watch), some of these fitness trackers lack any way for a wearer to actually tell the current time. This is more than a petty gripe. Remember, after the initial infatuation with these tools wears out, people still need a reason to wear them. Lack of watch functionality may be a missed opportunity to encourage consistent use and continual engagement with the products.
At the other end of the market are the devices that function as more comprehensive wrist-mounted information centers. Telling time is obviously a key feature here, but devices like the Pebble and the new, and more fashion-forward, ASUS Zenwatch are functional extensions of the owners’ smartphones. The tasks for which you’re most often pulling that phone out of your pocket — viewing and responding to incoming texts, alerts, checking who is currently calling — can be accomplished with a glance at your wrist instead.
This capability appealed to me, and so in the end, I went with a Microsoft Band. Like the rumored Apple Watch, Microsoft Band is both a capable smartphone extender and an impressive package of health tracking sensors beyond the requisite accelerometer.
From a fitness tracker/quantified-self perspective, it offers heart rate monitoring, skin temperature sensors, and galvanic skin response sensors which are used together to measure an array of things like real-time calorie burn, UV tracking (time to put on some sunscreen!) and GPS-informed location information. It also coordinates with the Microsoft Health app (available on iOS, Android, or Window’s Phone) to track sleep and to step you through pre-set workout routines. And lastly, it integrates with the well-established Microsoft Health Vault Personal Health Record.
Since it’s a smartphone extender, I can read and respond to texts and emails, get a wide range of alerts, and view my calendar along with the one feature available exclusively to those of us pairing a Microsoft Band with a Window’s phone, access to Cortana (the Windows Phone digital assistant).
And as something I wear on my wrist every day, I appreciate the fact that I can actually use it to tell the current time.
Though there are clearly a lot of things to like about my Microsoft Band, it’s certainly not perfect. Battery life leaves much to be desired. I’ve had to charge mine every day, particularly if using the GPS capability. A full charge takes about 30 minutes, but since I’m tracking sleep, I need to find that 30 minutes during my waking hours instead of letting it charge while I sleep.
It’s also seems a bit more fragile than most watches I wear. The screen, which is worn on the inside of the wrist, is prone to scratching. The “military grade” screen protector I ordered with my Band fell off while sleeping the first night, never to be seen again.
Still, for less than $200, my new Band has been great. Using it has helped me learn about the value of taking a long walk with the dog, and so far it appears to be encouraging me to be more active. I’ve also had real revelations about the quality of my sleep and I’m experimenting with my nightly routine using data that’s at least passably accurate.
Even with this new found appreciation for my wearable (and wearables in general), I still don’t think 2015 will be the year they change “everything”. But what I am learning is that maybe they don’t need to. If these devices can get us more in tune with our bodies and improve the experience of being constantly tethered to our cell phones, I’ll probably be wearing mine for a long time to come.