– Derek M. Hansen –
When I was ten years old in 1980, my parents received a pedometer as a gift from a friend. It was an interesting little device that looked like a fancy stopwatch of sorts. It was round and had a belt clip that you could fasten on your waist. When you shook it, it made a jiggling sound inside like there was something loose floating around within the casing. You could manually set your stride length for running or walking and the dial on the pedometer would churn out your mileage. As a young athlete, I was fascinated by this “technology” and would run around our backyard trying to amass mileage for no good reason. I even went to the local track to figure out my mileage, even though I knew each lap was 400 meters. The interesting thing was that everyone in my family was relatively active so we didn’t really worry about how much exercise we accumulated or how far we ran. My parents jogged and hiked, and my brother and I played numerous sports, including Track and Field. We just moved a lot, kept fit and left it at that. Hence, the nifty pedometer, after a few test runs, was left in a drawer for the remainder of my childhood.
Enter 2015 and we have a whole bunch of companies clamouring for your attention, wanting to track every little movement you make. In essence, they are all ultra-complex versions of the simple pedometer I played around with 35 years ago. They can track your heart rate, monitor your mileage with GPS, document simple movements from your wrist, measure your body temperature and let you know if you have a restful sleep. We all love data, particularly if it is data about our biological functions and our accomplishments, however trivial. How fast is my heart beating, how far did I run and did I really have as crappy a sleep as it seemed? All of these questions can be answered, and more. All you have to do is shell out a bunch of cash for what typically is packaged as a wrist-worn device that collects your activity data.
Being the techno-geek that I am, I have been looking closely at these devices as of late to see which one will be the ‘ultimate’ activity tracker for me. Of course, this means breaking out Microsoft Excel and creating my activity tracker features matrix that allows me to accurately determine the value of each product and make an informed decision. Thus, I am simply creating more data in order to purchase a device that gives me more data. I can’t wait to get my sleep-tracking device to figure out how much I’m not sleeping at night worrying about collecting more data.
When doing this type of evaluation, we are often tempted to find the device that does absolutely everything we want and then make our purchase. This is the world we live in. We desire one device that will do everything for us. I love cameras and I often get into these dilemmas when looking at new models on the market. Do I want a camera with a long zoom? Do I want one that has a great sensor? Do I need one that is compact? Can I get one that shoots still photos and video at extremely high quality? In the end, I want a camera that does it all. Unfortunately, they simply don’t make that camera and you ultimately need to compromise on some features. This is the same dilemma with activity trackers, or any consumer product for that matter. You will never get everything in one specific product. And sometimes, when they try to give you everything, it is rarely a very good product. Thus, you need to outline which features make the most sense for you and the activities you plan on tracking.
Key features and qualities for any activity tracker or wearable tech device when considering your purchase will be as follows:
Any consumer-level tech device, no matter how powerful, should be easy to use and not require the user to file through a thick operating manual. Putting the device on and letting it do the rest is pretty much what people expect. Perhaps you have to enter some user profile data such as age, sex and exercise preference. However you don’t want to be entering your blood type, shoe size and your most recent immunization shots. Once your user preferences are entered, you simply want to press start and be on your merry way.
The next convenience feature will be how easily you get the data out of the device and onto your computer, tablet or smart-phone. Ideally, a wireless transfer of data would be a preferred method of transferring data, as we always seem to lose the correct USB cable, particularly if it is a proprietary cable. A one-button solution for data transfer or self-uploading function would be the easiest way to make this happen for the average user. I have a few devices that are pretty good at making a connection when in close proximity to my computer, and I’m quite happy with it. Of course, in many instances wireless connections can be less robust, with the user never really knowing if a solid connection has been made or why it has not been made. I assume that the reliability of wireless connectivity will continue to improve with seamless integration with smart-phone apps a foregone conclusion.
Battery life should also fall under the category of convenience. If you need to charge the battery every day or more frequently, which can be the case for some of the more complex devices, it can become a significant inconvenience. Some of the more simple activity trackers can go without a recharge for seven to ten days. This may be an important consideration if you are already charging your smart phone and other personal devices on a daily basis.
Either way, on-line reviews by customers seem to provide good information on the convenience factor. If people find it confusing or frustrating, they typically return the item pretty quickly. If you find you are burning more calories switching the unit on, transferring data or adjusting the fit of the device, it is a pretty good sign that it’s not for you.
Some people are real sticklers for accuracy with their activity tracking devices. I know when I bought my first GPS watch several years ago, my first inclination was to go to the nearest running track – which I assumed was accurately installed – and jog one lap in the first lane to see if my watch accurately displayed 400 meters at the conclusion of the lap. To my dismay, the GPS watch was typically off by one to two percent (4 to 8 meters per lap) and it was a bit of a letdown. “Technological devices produced by scientists should be accurate!” I thought to myself. But everyday devices in our life are often inaccurate by the same or greater margin of error including speedometers and odometers in cars, bathroom weigh scales and thermometers in ovens. Yet we don’t seem to get the same anxiety when a pan of cookies comes out a little crisper than we would have liked.
If anything, I would only ask that these devices not be reliable and consistent with their inaccuracies. If I knew that my GPS watch or my activity tracker was consistently off by one to two percent, I could do the math in my head and get a better sense of my running distances and other performance measures, just like a scale that is always off by five pounds. It is when there is great variability in error that I get concerned. Some activity trackers, heart rate monitors and GPS devices suffer from this problem in varying degrees. It really depends on your tolerance for inaccuracy and reliability.
Real Time Data Availability
Individuals often want to see their results right away. This means that a big display on the unit, showing your progress in real-time, is of great importance to the user. This is significant for endurance athletes who rely on GPS or heart rate monitoring for managing their pace or output. In the case of runners, cyclists or swimmers, managing their pace per mile, viewing their velocity or keeping in the correct heart rate zone can be critical for optimizing their performance in both training and competition. A large display screen combined with audible signals and vibration alerts are a must for the sector of the market. Of course, all of these features must be balanced off with battery life, aesthetics and comfort, as you don’t want a small computer monitor on your wrist.
Some people simply want to look at their results at the end of the day. Smaller, discrete activity trackers are better for this group of exercisers. Pacing is not an issue and overall activity totals are more to their liking. They will not adjust their activity mid-stream or fret about their heart rate going off the rails. If you are the type of person that simply want to join a fitness class, go for a random hike, walk around your neighborhood or measure your sleep activity, a smaller activity tracker may be enough to satisfy your needs.
As with all technology, there are varying levels of cost that are available to consumers. You can go all in and buy the top of the line device with all the bells and whistles that you may never use. Or, you can settle in on a device that satisfies your most simple needs and makes you feel like you have not been left behind in the wearable revolution.
There are two types of people that will buy the most expensive top-end devices: those that actually use all of the functionality of the device, and those that simply want to tell others that they plan on using all the functions. In actuality, the average person does not need the most expensive wearable tech device. They may not even need the mid-grade models. It is up to the individual to determine what functionality you need and make your purchase decision based on those needs. Trust me – in 12-18 months, the technology will have advanced considerably and you will probably buy a new device anyways, if you haven’t already broken it doing CrossFit workouts. Try to determine what you need and what you will use, and find the best price for those features. If you want to buy the most expensive device to impress your friends, knock yourself out.
Application Software Bundle
Sometimes you can buy a great, durable and reliable wearable tech device and then find out the software or application bundled with the software is not to your liking. Older generations of devices would have software that you could install on your computer to interact with your device. New generation wearables connect to on-line dashboards that summarize your data with maps, tables, graphs and other data visualizations. While some of these applications are convenient, some can also be cumbersome. You may want to check out reviews of the wearable tech device you are considering and find out what is offered on the application end. Some people will walk you through the upload and analysis process on YouTube to give you a feel for what to expect.
I also like the idea of being able to summarize data myself using a spreadsheet application like Microsoft Excel. Thus, raw data export ability is a must for me, but not necessarily offered by all companies. The Garmin Connect application that accompanies my wife’s GPS and heart rate monitor watch allows export to TCX, GPX, Google Earth and CSV files. The Suunto Movescount application also provides a multitude of export formats that can be very convenient for the upper-end, geeked-out user. Do your research and make sure you are able to review the data collected by your device in the format you prefer. On the other hand, some people simply like to see that they have taken more steps or burnt off more calories from day to day.
If you are a serious athlete and weeklong warrior, you should really base your purchase decision on durability. For those who will be playing a physical team sport, impact resistance may be a consideration (if you are permitted to wear the device during play). If you are in the water for your activities, the appropriate water resistance rating will be an important consideration, with a 50 to 100 meter rating typically providing adequate protection for basic swimming and passive water sports. If you are going to be using your device during a Tough Mudder event, you may want to consider one of the more robust models that have been tested under the conditions you will experience. And this does not only include the integrity of the electronic components. I know a lot of people who have been confounded by the breaking of the wrist strap at the most inopportune times. I encourage everyone to read user reviews and learn from the successes and failures of people using these devices under similar conditions.
The average person may only need a level of durability that will get them through the day. This will include day-to-day wear that includes sleeping, showering, passive exercise and the odd bump against the wall. While this doesn’t sound like much, the repetitive nature of these activities drawn out over a year or two can add up. We all understand that tech devices have a rather short lifespan as newer, more advanced devices emerge every few months. However, I should point out that some of my older generation wearable tech devices – analog wristwatches – have lasted me for 20 to 30 years, and continue to tell the correct time. So, it is not much to ask that our current wearables last for at least two to three years.
Human nature is human nature and we all want the things we wear to look cool and trendy. This is also true of wearable technology. Only when the functionality of the device far outweighs the aesthetics requirement do we compromise on the design issue. This was the case with the first generation of GPS watches that looked like a folded calculator on your wrist. But now, advances in technology have allowed us to shrink down these devices and make them fashionable and cool, not geeky. The problem is that if you make the device too small and discrete, the interface will be less readable and interaction with the device will be difficult.
The key for most wearable tech companies is to make their device functional, but also make it fashionable. In many cases, design must supersede function to evoke an emotional response from consumers. If your product looks ugly, it probably won’t sell at all. But if your product looks cool, some of the functionality can still be rectified with a future firmware upgrade. Lots of car aficionados love the Ferraris and Jaguars of yesteryear, even though they spend more than half of their life in the repair shop. The emotional attachment to aesthetically pleasing objects also extends to consumer electronics now more than ever.
Final Thoughts on Wearable Tech
If you really want to be happy with your wearable tech purchase, go with a company with a proven track record with the feature that you require the most accuracy. If you value GPS for running, cycling and/or swimming, Garmin has a lot of experience. If you want good heart rate monitoring, Suunto and Polar have a good track record. For those that want activity tracking through movement, including sleep monitoring, Fitbit and Jawbone seem to have the edge on the competition. These are simply my casual observations on the market, and perhaps another company will surge past these leaders in due time.
One thing that will be certain is that the precision and accuracy of data collection will reach a critical mass and we won’t see much improvement beyond what the average consumer requires for their health and fitness. There will always be a small portion of geeks who want their movement accuracy measured to the nearest millimeter, but this is not what the general public wants or needs. Where the technology developers will make the biggest headway, as with any data collection technology, is how they display and summarize the data, as well as provide prescriptions on activity modification to the user. Effective problem solving with good data is going to be the most important step in the process for wearable tech.
A prime example would be the sleep tracker that determines that you have had a horrible sleep. Not only did you take too long to fall asleep, you tossed and turned the whole time, sat up six times during the night and woke up much too early and very agitated. Most of us can figure it out when this happens without a wearable device by simply looking at the arrangement of pillows and blankets in the morning. An activity tracker showing colorful graphs of the crappy nature of our sleep patterns may only create more anxiety. What we all want to know is how to avoid poor sleep and make incremental improvements. When companies come up with creative solutions from their data output (aside from the typical suggestions of reduce your caffeine intake and avoid computer screens before bed) it will set them apart from the competition.
If you are currently in the market for a wearable tech device to help you monitor your performance, health and fitness, I would suggest doing your research on your personal performance goals and then determining which device can provide you with the best data to help achieve those goals. Triathletes will have different goals than weightlifters. Runners will have different goals than cyclists. And, cross training athletes will tend to be harder on their devices than people who simply want to go for a walk. If you are not sure what to buy, the best advice you can take is simply “wait and see.” Wearable tech is growing into a multi-billion dollar industry and new advances are being made every quarter. You will only benefit from being patient to find the most suitable purchase.