It feels like we’re on the edge of something big… and it’s all about sensors

We’re waiting for the groundbreaking sensors to catch up, but we’re so close
While pouring over Fitbit’s less-than-exemplary financials last week, I opined that the company just needs to get through this transitional period and to the place where it can start delivering more life-changing biometric insights. But this doesn’t just apply to Fitbit – it’s the entire industry – and it’s a waiting game.

You see, we’re in a bit of limbo. The wearable tech market has saturated; some companies which got in early have stepped back, others have stepped in. Miniaturization of hardware has made wearables sleeker and smarter, but the sensors are still hobbling behind – but it feels like we’re about to break through from Wearable Tech 1.0 to version 2.0.

It’s in the pivot from fitness metrics to broader wellness that wearable tech will hit the big leagues. We’ve seen stirrings: Garmin and Fitbit have started looking at heart rate variability, a better indicator of overall wellness and stress levels, in their recent devices. Meanwhile data analysis is running deeper and more insightfully. But the best is yet to come.

We recently revealed Fitbit will be changing its sensor technology in its as-yet-unnamed smartwatch, using red light technology. As editor Mike explains in greater depth, this could be significant: red light tech is used to track things like pulse oximetry, a measure of blood oxygen levels. Green light photoplethysmography on wearables was so far proved uneven in accuracy and limited in the physiological parameters it can read; red could be a tipping point. Blood oxygenation for example, the measure of a body’s O2 saturation (note: different to VO2 Max – that’s maximum oxygen consumption), can alert you to respiratory and other life-endangering problems.

Elsewhere, the team over at BSX Athletics think they’ve cracked hydration tracking with LVL – although frustratingly have just delayed the wearable until 2018. Despite hydration being so essential to exercise, sleep and, well, just about everything, it’s not yet surfaced in wearables. It’s coming though.

Fitbit’s progress in sleep tracking too has given users more reason to pay more attention to what their tracker is telling them, and CEO James Park says the company is looking to tackle hypertension, arrhythmia and sleep apnea. One in three Americans suffer from high blood pressure – imagine if this was something a simply fitness tracker could watch. Chuck that uncomfortable cuff away. Ranndy Kellogg, CEO of Omron Healthcare, told me he thinks a commercially viable wearable method for blood pressure will surface between two and five years’ time. I wonder if it could be sooner, rather than later.

Then there’s non-invasive glucose monitoring, one of the holy grails of health tracking (yes, there are several), for which tech companies will inevitably find a solution, even if this one feels a bit further away. Apple is said to be working on it, a team at Seoul National University in South Korea told me how they found a way to read glucose in small amounts of skin sweat on a wearable patch.

Leaked Jawbone documents show that the company has been working on many of the things mentioned above, including a stress management wearable for measuring blood pressure, galvanic skin response, respiration and skin temperature. Another, based on a T-Stat oximeter, would be able to detect a heart attack coming on. The current state of Jawbone considered, we’re not getting our hopes up that it will deliver any of this, but it’s exciting that it has potentially found a way to make any of this work.

All of this is to come, and it feels like we’re so close – we just need those sensors to catch up. At the convergence of miniaturized health sensors, wearable technology and effective machine learning, self-monitoring healthcare will explode. I think we’re on the precipice, but companies like Fitbit need to weather the storm. Tech is a neverending game of shrinking parts, and in wearables Moore’s Law feels more relevant than ever. Wearable Tech 2.0 is just around the corner, and it’s all in the sensors.

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