Thursday, 08 December 2016 12:15

Wearables' growing commercial and health use

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ANALYSIS Do smartwatches and fitness bands have a commercial, health or other use? The short answer is not so much at present, but it is heading that way.

At present a fitness band is basically capable of measuring activity via a three-or-more-axis accelerometer/pedometer – forward, back, left, right, up-down, etc. Some better ones have altimeters (stairs/elevation), barometer, gyroscope, continuous or interval heart monitor, GPS, galvanic skin response (hydration), UV monitor, and more sensors to come.

A smartwatch adds the ability to run applications and use more notifications. Their commercial or health use comes from the fact that they are relatively unobtrusive devices that sit on your arm and do what they are designed to do – gather data and transmit telemetry to another smart device.

So, to extend their use will require either the addition of more sensors, like a blood “prick” for glucose or cholesterol measurement, oxygen saturation (SO2), pulse oximetry, etc. Regrettably, these devices cannot yet be miniaturised to fit the smartwatch format although there is work being done on a larger scale “vitality detector” that may link to a smart device.

So, that leaves the bulk of the research around software app development that can make use of the telemetry supplied by the smart watch to the smartphone.

For the moment forget the plethora of “health apps” - fitness apps, sleep trackers, meditation guides, etc., – not so much snake oil but most are only reinterpreting data that your smartwatch provides.

But there are apps to measure blood glucose and track it back to food intake. Little Byte’s Blood Glucose Tracker has an Android Wear app to allow watches with a microphone to collect spoken data. Another will calculate insulin doses and display it on the smartwatch.

Heart rate tracking is contentious. Interval or continuous heart rate tracking is far less accurate than a 12-lead electrocardiogram, and the medical profession eschews smart watch accuracy. At best, it shows a pattern over time and can be overlaid on activity and location.

Checklists are big, and Android Wear has HealthTap that allows visual and audio prompts to remind users to take and confirm medication.

Health tap

SOS is becoming a big thing, and several apps (many built into the smart watch) allow you to nominate an SOS contact that can receive a warning if you have had an incident. Most rely on you pushing the home key three times, but some are said to have algorithms that detect “medical incidents” like falls, strokes, and more. Plus, for aged care, the SOS can be used as a call button to alert a carer.

GPS location is being used to track wanderers and dimentia patients.

Insurance industry – it is not the panacea

Smartwatches were touted as the insurance industry panacea — wear and share your data for ongoing “risk” — that is financial not health assessment. These usually have an app and training or fitness programme and can help a customer save premiums if they get enough exercise and sleep.

It is a gimmick, but down the track, major insurers will insist on e-health profiles to replace some of the 30+ pages of user-completed health information required now.

Wearables at work

There has been a lot of work done to use a smartwatch as a personal identifier able to track arrival and departure times from and office, location throughout the day, and assess levels of fitness or tiredness. These have largely failed because they are intrusive and a user’s privacy is sacrosanct.

But there are moves to make it the access point for printers (via NFC), to open locks and lockers, to login to corporate networks and more. The problem is that few smartwatches have the smarts to do this – for example, Apple’s watch will not allow NFC to be used other than for Apple Pay.

Wannabe smartwatch companies in this space talk about “convergence” of devices driving this market – the smartwatch, phone, locator, smart card, camera, music player, network access, checklists, etc. Most work so far here has been on wearables – bracelets, goggles, chest straps, clothing shoes, etc., that use Bluetooth to connect to a smartphone, rather than a smartwatch.

The aim is to converge the following functions into a device

  • Tracking – where are you
  • Monitoring (are you in the right place at the right time)
  • Assisting – checklists, translations, instructions
  • Capturing – audio and video
  • Controlling – via NFC, like a joystick (gyro)
  • Consuming – content serving
  • Communicating – Dick Tracey style
  • Sharing – collaboration and camera
  • Augmented reality, visualisation
  • Security and verification

TRA work wearables

Techquarterly Asia has a good article here.

Smartwatch for smart agricultural use

Samsung and its partners are working on a smart device that will allow you to count livestock – like a carnival ride counter, take photo’s replete with GPS coordinates of broken fences, sick animals, and infrastructure, field map and generally add value to people on the land. It may also be used in robotic farming and drone control.

Most of it can be done with the current Galaxy Gear S3 and S7 smartphone, and it is the apps that make the difference.

Conclusion

It is good to see apps being developed using existing technology, but as has been mentioned there needs to be a lot more convergence in the one device and current technology is the limiting factor.

Five years from now we will see amazing smartwatches that can do everything from order a beer if you are thirsty to an ambulance to get you to the hospital.

If any readers are aware of other uses of the Apple Watch, Android Wear or Samsung Tizen let's continue the dialogue below.


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Ray Shaw

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Ray Shaw ray@im.com.au  has a passion for IT ever since building his first computer in 1980. He is a qualified journalist, hosted a consumer IT based radio program on ABC radio for 10 years, has developed world leading software for the events industry and is smart enough to no longer own a retail computer store!

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