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In the World of Wearables, Tech Companies Are Suddenly Taking Heart (Rate)

The focus on heart rate has come full circle.

Vjeran Pavic

When San Francisco-based Fitbit launched its first product in 2009, it was hailed as the first wireless, wearable fitness device for the mass consumer market. Building on the features of a basic pedometer, the clip-on Fitbit added a welcome software element to counting steps, allowing users to view their progress through Fitbit’s website or mobile app.

Perhaps more notably, Fitbit — and its eventual step-tracking competitors — eschewed heart-rate monitoring, something that was considered necessary only for serious fitness buffs or people with heart-health concerns.

Five years later, Fitbit is now betting on continuous heart-rate tracking as a way to add value to its consumer health products, with plans to release two new wearables early next year that will read heart-rate data through the wrist. And Fitbit is hardly alone: Jawbone, Intel, Motorola, Samsung, LG Electronics, Microsoft and Apple are part of a growing list of companies that will release or already have shipped wearable tech products with heart-rate sensors.

“People have always asked, ‘What’s next with Fitbit?’ and I’ve held my tongue because we’ve been working on new heart-rate technology for a long time,” co-founder and CEO James Park said in an interview with Re/code last month. “We’re probably on the leading edge of what you might call second-gen heart-rate technology.”

The new Fitbit Surge is a smartwatch with continuous heart-rate tracking and GPS. The company expects it will ship in early 2015 for $250.
The new Fitbit Surge is a smartwatch with continuous heart-rate tracking and GPS. The company expects it will ship in early 2015 for $250.

The inclusion of these sensors in new activity-trackers and smartwatches, which average $120 and $180 in price respectively, underscores the importance of heart data when it comes to getting a comprehensive picture of a person’s health, industry experts say. But in some ways, it’s also an admission that first-generation wearables haven’t been nearly as useful as promised: A category pegged for growth, but with sales still a fraction of those of smartphones and tablets.

There are also questions around the accuracy — and privacy — of heart-rate data being tracked through consumer wearables.

For the companies that make these wearable health-and-fitness trackers, the strategy behind taking heart (rate) is clear.

For one, more sensors could help add viability to a category of products that has a high drop-off rate, says Liz Dickinson, founder and CEO of Mio, which introduced one of the first wristbands with optical heart-rate sensors back in 2012.

In October, PwC released a report on the future of wearables that said 33 percent of surveyed consumers who had purchased a wearable device a year ago no longer use the device at all or use it infrequently.

Dickinson likens the pattern of consumers buying — and then ditching — activity-trackers to “the same mentality as, ‘Oh, that didn’t work, maybe I need a new pair of running sneakers.’ People that are dedicated to exercise know they need heart rate. I think the activity-trackers have reached a ceiling, and with so many more coming in, companies are thinking, ‘What’s the best way to get in?'”

Another driver in the heart-rate-tracking trend is the fact that the sensors are easier to come by, says Travis Bogard, Jawbone’s vice president of product management and strategy.

 The $200 Microsoft Band also has optical heart-rate sensors.
The $200 Microsoft Band also has optical heart-rate sensors.

Jawbone’s approach to heart-rate tracking is different from what other wearable companies are doing: its new UP3 wristband includes a proprietary combination of sensors categorized as bioimpedance, while Fitbit Surge, Microsoft Band, the Basis Peak health watch and the yet-to-be-released Apple Watch use optical, or light-driven, heart rate sensors.

Bogard says all of the necessary heart-rate-tracking components are “more widely available” than they have been in the past.

Not only available, but cheap, says another wearable maker. Sonny Vu of Misfit, which so far has opted not to include heart-rate tracking in its wristbands, says sensors “could cost between one to two dollars per sensor. And those [companies] that are including them are jacking up prices,” he adds, “so the margins are way better.”

Then there’s the data element, which one insider refers to as a “data grab” that’s happening right now. Tech companies large and small are already gaining access to plenty of personal health information from consumers, such as age, height, weight, steps taken and hours slept. Heart rate is seen as another valuable piece of data.

“It’s a land rush in the data space,” says David Albert, a doctor and the inventor of AliveCor, an EKG-measurement device that wraps around the iPhone. “Companies want to mine all of that data and look for insights and competitive advantages to prove valuable.”

For the average consumer, though — and not patients with heart conditions — the value of having optical heart-rate sensors in wristbands and smartwatches, in earbuds or even in a smartphone might still be unclear. Some devices are obviously meant to track episodic workouts, while others record continuous, or all-day, heart-rate readings. (They’re also not always accurate.)

The Apple Watch will also have — you guessed it — heart-rate monitoring.
The Apple Watch will also have — you guessed it — heart-rate monitoring.

Athletes and fitness buffs for decades have relied on heart-rate readings, usually through a chest strap and high-powered watch, for training sessions; Mio’s Liz Dickinson points out that athletes want to work within fairly narrow zones to achieve specific goals, and that heart rate can have a big impact on caloric expenditure.

So what would a non-athlete need “continuous” heart-rate tracking for? Most companies in the space say these readings will inform algorithms around calories, sleep staging, hydration and even stress and emotion levels. And resting heart rate can be a valuable parameter for cardio health.

In other words, the goal is to give the wearer a fuller, more complete picture of his or her health.

But there also are the inevitable privacy concerns that come with sharing all of this health data. PwC’s report on wearables — including but not limited to health wearables — said that 82 percent of respondents felt concerned that these technologies would invade their privacy, and that 86 percent indicated wearables would make consumers more vulnerable to security breaches.

It’s not only the wearable devices themselves, but also the compatible apps, that could be subject to scrutiny as they begin to gather more data. Consumer health apps like Fitbit and Jawbone Up aren’t subject to federal HIPAA privacy rules, which exist around apps that share protected health information with doctors and hospitals.

The introduction of health-data software repositories like Apple’s HealthKit has raised at least some questions around how mobile health platforms and apps will operate when it comes to sharing sensitive information. (For what it’s worth, Apple’s position has been that data stored in the Health app and HealthKit is not covered by HIPAA regulation because the data is controlled by the user, not HIPAA-controlled entities. Google, on its Web page for Google Fit app developers, also says it “makes no representations that Google Fit satisfies HIPAA requirements.”)

Still, “there are definitely some issues you’ll want to consider when you start posting biometric information [in an app] — not steps, but biometrics,” Dickinson emphasizes.

“There’s a lot you can tell from this data, like whether someone is going to have a cardiac event in five years. What happens when your insurer gets access to that data? That’s where the questions come in.”

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