October 23, 2014

WHAT’S UP DOC?: Keeping Tabs on Our Biometrics

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Personal fitness trackers — love them or hate them, they are popping up everywhere. From wearables on the wrist, to belt clips, to sensors embedded in our cellphones, it seems that electronics increasingly want to know us at a more intimate level. While this allows for an unprecedented amount of information about our movements, vitals and sleep patterns, it is unclear how this information will actually affect our daily lives. In this column, I will take a look at the technologies currently available and weigh the pros and cons of the quantified self.

Fitness tracking devices can be roughly segregated into two categories: 1) Clips and wristbands that track the users steps, distance, altitude and sleep cycle and 2) Smartwatches that track activity plus synchronize with the user’s phone to glean additional information such as emails, phone calls and make payments. As a whole, adoption rates of personal fitness trackers have grown by nearly 500 percent in the past year. This constitutes 3.3 million devices sold between April 2013 and March 2014, with revenues from fitness trackers expected to exceed $1 billion by the end of 2014. This may sound impressive, but compared to other portable devices such as smartphones this number is quite small. For example Motorola, which holds only four percent of the U.S. smartphone market, sold 4.8 million handsets for the year. This means out of all the people you know who have a Motorola device, there are even fewer who have a personal fitness tracker. Regardless, the fitness tracker market is growing and will only continue to expand as new devices hit the market.

The leading line of fitness clips and wristbands is Fitbit (accounting for 67 percent of sales), with Jawbone (18 percent) and Nike (11 percent) a distant second and third. Market shares are expected to shift as larger companies like Apple enter the ring with their respective smartwatches, which may offer added value to consumers. Indeed, a study conducted by the Consumer Electronics Association indicates that the largest barrier for adoption of fitness trackers is questioning the need to continuously monitor one’s activity, a fear that could be alleviated by compounding fitness tracking with many of the other functions offered by smartwatches.

So this brings us to the main question: Why should we monitor our activity in the first place? Let’s face it, most of us would like to exercise more than we currently do. Fitness trackers provide motivation through quantifying and displaying exercise trends, as well as setting milestones and making sure they are reached. Want to lose five pounds? Your fitness tracker can track your weight and offer suggestions in terms of calorie intake and exercise duration to help you reach your goal. Fitbit will even send notifications as cumulative distances such as 3,000 miles (distance to run across America) are reached. Competitions can also be set up amongst friends. It is small reinforcements like this that can insure New Year’s resolutions are fulfilled. Beyond exercise, fitness trackers also monitor sleep quality and resting heart rate. However, this is just about the extent of their usefulness currently.

There are other features on the horizon, though. In a pilot study completed at Stanford University, pediatric patients with type 1 diabetes tracked their blood sugar using Apple HealthKit, which was then sent directly to their physicians for monitoring. Their physician could then analyze blood sugar trends and the frequency of hypoglycemia to make decisions on how to better intervene to maintain blood sugar levels. Physicians then had the ability to communicate their assessments to patients directly through the app. By streamlining blood glucose monitoring and patient-physician interaction, several hurdles that adversely affect patient quality of life are overcome. If innovations like this are any indication, it may not be long before fitness trackers move from a purely recreational device into the healthcare space.

Yet the potential for third party access raises a range of privacy concerns. Currently, any data gathered by fitness trackers is stored on that company’s servers. This means your name, height, weight, times you exercise and how long you sleep are not as private as you may think. Reassuringly, Apple restricts all apps that share information with HealthKit from selling any health information or utilizing health data for purposes other than providing health and fitness services. Fitbit states that they will never sell data that could be linked back to the user. However this does not exclude selling de-identified or aggregated data such as trends for marketing and promotional use. This also does not restrict fitness trackers from adding ‘services’ in the future based on personal information. For example, suggesting places to rehydrate during your daily run. It is also not a stretch to imagine activity, weight and sleep quality being adapted for personalized product suggestions as well. It remains to be seen whether this kind of advertising will be regarded as useful or invasive.

In an age of big data, it seems natural that technology would progress to quantifying our biometrics as well. However, the devices currently available only offer a superficial glimpse into our activity. As additional sensors are added, such as blood pressure and glucose monitors, the utility of fitness trackers will undoubtedly increase. This, combined with physician access, will take fitness trackers from novelty into the realm of preventative medicine. Moving forward, it will be important to insure that the biometric data being gathered is kept private and only used in ways that will positively affect the wearer. We live in a time of unprecedented access to information about ourselves as well as the world around us. Fitness trackers add another layer of depth to this equation, but still have a long way to go.