Into the bright future

After a speedy rise to the top of pop culture, fitness trackers are officially mainstream. Chances are you or somebody you know uses a tracker. Even if you were to ask your grandparent about trackers, it’s reasonable to think they will know what you’re talking about. Clearly, this hasn’t always been the case. When tracking first started gaining traction in early 2000, many dismissed the wearable health movement as a fad. It’s true, not every tracker has survived, but for those device manufacturers and app developers who continue to innovate, the future looks bright.

Consumers are enthusiastic and are voting with their wallets. According to the International Data Corporation, total shipment volumes (of wearables) reached 19.7 million units in the first quarter of 2016, an increase of 67.2% from the 11.8 million units shipped in 1Q2015. While no two trackers are the same , and the data being generated may not always be accurate, it’s fair to say fitness trackers are a viable approach to improving health and wellness. Tracking devices are here to stay and the playing field is wide open for manufacturers, experts and entrepreneurs alike, to develop new technologies and software that go well beyond fitness tracking into areas we, until now, would never have imagined.  Here are some examples of where the tracking industry is headed:

Dating Sites

If you’re between the ages of 18 and 65, it’s possible you’ve either used, or know someone who has used a dating app. A study conducted by Pew Research this year showed that 15% of American adults have used online dating sites or mobile dating apps, up from 11% in 2013. If you are looking for love, or just curious to see what’s new in the realm of dating, check out the app called Once. Not even a year old, Once already has over 70,000 users!  Perhaps the success of this app is due to its scientific approach to online matchmaking. Once accesses heart rate monitoring data from your fitness tracker or other smart wearable and then measures your heart rate as you open the app to view your daily match.  A daily match is a potential suitor the app offers you once (aha!) a day.

Whenever your average heart rate increases by more than 10bpm (beats per minute) while viewing a match, the encounter is registered as an initial attraction and it is marked ‘like’. What happens next is up to the suitor. Lest there be any confusion, Once also allows you to keep track of your heart rate for every daily match that you liked so you can compare results and figure out who really set your heart aflutter.

Whether or not these measurements have any bearing on romantic compatibility remains to be seen.  At the very least, it can be a great ice breaker on your first date!

College Universities

One controversial application of wearable technology comes by way of Oral Roberts University (ORU) in Oklahoma.   As part of a comprehensive fitness plan designed to promote healthy habits and good grades, ORU has made it mandatory for all first year students to buy and wear a Fitbit and track and share their data with the university.  While organizations incorporating wearable healthcare technology isn’t new – companies like Target have given employees free Fitbits – Oral Roberts is the first university that’s known to make data syncing with fitness tracking devices mandatory, and therein lay the difference.

It is not surprising many people have voiced opposition to a college keeping such close tabs on its student body. As part of their fitness program, aall undergrads at Oral Roberts are required to take a physical fitness course each semester that includes reading, exams and a Fitbit-monitored weekly activity requirement of 150 minutes per week. Students must also take a minimum of 10,000 steps a day. One can’t help but wonder if a program like this discriminates against students who are not physically up to the task. In fairness, the university does not monitor students’ weight and diet and appears to simply want to encourage wellness and self-monitoring in its youngest and most impressionable students. It’ll be interesting to see what the results of this experiment yield for Oral Roberts and whether more universities will follow their lead.

Hollywood Movie Studios

Impressed cinema viewers with popcorn

Movie studios are notorious for putting their upcoming films through a lengthy screening and tweaking processes for maximum impact and audience appeal. This kind of review makes sense if you factor in that the cheapest Hollywood movies still costs millions to make. Studios like 20th Century Fox have recently taken their prerelease evaluation process even further by fitting test audiences with wearables to monitor viewers’ physical responses to upcoming blockbuster thrills and chills.

Last year’s Oscar winning, grueling survivalist picture, The Revenant starring Leonardo DiCaprio, was one such picture that was evaluated by test audiences with trackers before it was presented to the public. 20th Century Fox worked with a company called Lightwave to analyze biometric information including heart rate, moisture on the skin and even movement data that came from wristbands worn by the audience with special sensors built into them. This movement data could hypothetically be used to document when an audience member’s hand leapt up from their seat in shock or gone slack or motionless from deep concentration or maybe boredom. According to Lightwave, there were at last 15 “heart pounding” moments where the majority of the audience had raised heart rates in DiCaprio’s film.

The Workplace

Speaking of raised heart rates, the idea of wearables in the workplace might get your blood boiling. How and when tracking devices will be integrated into your day-to-day work life is a bone of contention for many. How much of our privacy, if any, should we give up to the companies we work for? What are the benefits to them and, more importantly for us, that make a prospective wearable program seem worth it for both parties?

Lindsay Irvine, director of strategic initiatives at Salesforce Wear, a San Francisco based company billed as the industry’s first initiative for wearable computing in the enterprise, suggests that most age-related health problems are avoidable. “The single largest cost for employers is healthcare, yet 70% is attributed to things we can change, like diet and exercise and stress. What employers are looking for is a way to address that 70% cost curve.” With so much to gain, it’s not surprising that companies are now beginning to use wearables as a means to help cultivate a healthier workforce.

Hitachi is one such company that believes happy employees perform better.  Recently, Hitachi launched a program where employees wear happiness-measuring sensors that are housed in badges to gauge their well being. The sensor collects data based on certain movements the employee makes throughout the day. The metrics are then put through an algorithm that measures happiness. While it is too early in the program to have any conclusive results, if happiness is the goal surely there will be a satisfactory outcome.

As long as individuals aren’t penalized for opting out of wearable programs, or more specifically not discriminated against by their data if they do, introducing tracking devices into the workplace could be ground breaking. That said, this movement is not without risk. The challenge lies somewhere in between; when does monitoring become surveillance? The potential for lawsuits resulting from privacy leaks, mismanagement or discrimination disputes have led companies to tread lightly.

Only 7% of employers use data collected from sensors to assess employees. Ultimately, employers are going to have to contend with added costs and rigorous new policies that are just beginning to take shape. While the benefits seem clear, wearables in the workplace have a long way to go. In the meantime, why not be a part of the change? Consider tracking your own happiness with an app like Happiness. Check it out, your work day just might get better!

Ultimately, the future is bright. The wearables market is hot and innovations in this space make it possible to see what is on the horizon – however it remains to be seen where they will take us. Ah, if only we could track the future!