Apple, Google, Fitbit: The battle for 'wrist-share' and the convergence of advanced technologies

Wearables have been all the rage in news media for the last couple of weeks. The big names in the space are taking unique approaches to dominate the human wrist. Despite the convergence of several advanced technologies, issues related to data will remain a challenge for some time.

apple watch on wrist 2
Credit: Rob Schultz

Wearables have been all the rage in news media for the last couple of weeks. More specifically, wearable consumer tech in healthcare.

Wearable device and fitness tracker company Fitbit is basking in the glow of a successful IPO, with stock prices rising more than 20 percent after opening on the NYSE.  The Apple Watch has been on sale to general public, and this blogger has been using one for several weeks. And Google just announced that its Google X research division has a developed a health-tracking wristband. Unlike the Apple Watch, which is essentially a consumer tech product – a miniature iPhone, in many ways – that has the enhanced ability to track fitness data, the Google device seems targeted at the medical community. The key difference here is that Google’s device is expected to be used in clinical trials to collect data on subjects who are part of the trial.

All three devices play in the consumer health data space. By collecting and using data that individuals willingly gather and report, the expectation is that individuals will learn to better manage their health and fitness at one end of the spectrum, and facilitate medical research and drug discovery processes at the other. I’m truly excited by what is unfolding currently in the wearables market.

The current focus on wearables, which we have seen can take a wide range of shapes and forms, is an extension, or perhaps a subset, of the Internet of Things (IoT) phenomenon which has captured our imagination from the beginning of the year, replacing “big data” as the hot topic. It is very likely that we are now seeing a convergence of several technology trends, all of which are aimed at harvesting personal health and medical information that can be used to improve health and wellness as well as academic research.

Thus, we see the explosion of applications for cognitive sciences in the IBM Watson platform, specifically Watson Health. We have been introduced to haptics in the Apple Watch. Google is reportedly working on the use of nanotechnology in early detection of cancer. These technologies will eventually find their way to our wrists. And fierce battles will rage among technology companies for “wrist-share”.

Wearables will drive the way we manage our health and wellness in future. And the future is closer than we think. Or is it?

Here are a few reasons why the promise of this new technology may take a bit longer than we think to make a meaningful difference to our health:

-- Humans are notoriously unreliable when it comes to turning on and off their trackers. This makes the job of collecting reliable data, well, unreliable.

-- The accuracy of the data being recorded is questionable given the current state of the technology. Due to various types of sensor technologies used, as well as individual differences between users, such as hair and sweat on the wrist at the time of readings, there are significant inconsistencies in the data gathered by wearables from the same individual.  

-- The true benefits of wearables in improving health and wellness can never be realized unless the data collected can be integrated with other medical and socio-economic data that will provide the sort of complete picture that skilled and experienced medical practitioners use when diagnosing and treating patients.

-- Interoperability issues between different systems that store patient medical information, combined with data privacy laws, continue to be big challenges.

-- Patent wars involving wearable devices are likely to put a damper on venture capital investments, as evidenced by Jawbone’s lawsuits against Fitbit for patent infringement. Ultimately, it is venture capital that will drive innovation and growth in this sector, and any adverse rulings will slow down capital flow to this fast-growing sector.

The transition from lifestyle data to actionable medical insights will involve crossing a long chasm, given the current state of the technology. We are seeing the very early stages of this exciting new era of wearables. I might even say that the technology is only skin-deep at this point. However, the very same technologies that are creating these wearables, could also provide us solutions to the issues that hinder the progress of these technologies. Wearables can potentially provide unique ways of biometric identification that can enable secure access to encrypted personal medical information, and also eliminate password inflation.   

For that reason alone, I would pay good money to a wearable device that can remember all my passwords for me.  

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