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Cutting Through the Wearable Hype: SXSW Explores Issues of Value, Retention

The hype around wearable technology gets a healthy dose of reality at SXSW.

Lauren Goode

Wearable technologies dominated the spotlight at the CES and Mobile World Congress tradeshows. And while the discussion over the latest generation of wristbands, watches and other devices that track your body’s movement and health continues here in Austin, Texas, at South By Southwest, the tone is distinctly skeptical.

It’s a much-needed slap back to the reality that these devices have a long way to go in offering personal and meaningful information that encourages people to live healthier lifestyles.

“The experiences of today’s wearables are pretty mediocre. We just need to say it,” said Rodrigo Martinez, chief strategist of life sciences at IDEO. “The UI, the interfaces are pretty meh. Every week, we have a new one that measures 80 percent of the same thing that another measures, just in a different form, a different color, a different plastic. It’s like, ‘Really?’ The exciting part of the category will be when we start asking completely different questions.”

Martinez, along with Basis CEO Jef Holove and Yijing Brentano, vice president of strategic initiatives and mobile health at Sprint, was part of a panel that I moderated called “The Connected Body: Can We Get Value from Wearables.” Our discussion was just one of at least half a dozen sessions at SXSW dedicated to the subject of wearable technology and its impact on health and wellness.

While some focused more on form factor or the medical profession, there was a common message that I heard throughout these sessions: Current activity wristbands like the Nike Fuelband, Fitbit Force and Jawbone Up do a good job of inspiring short-term behavioral change, but they’re not so good at the long term.

Part of the problem, according to Martha Wofford, vice president of CarePass at Aetna, is that the one-size-fits-all approach to data collection doesn’t serve the needs of every individual using the device.

“Long-term engagement is hard,” said Wofford during a Connected Fitness 2.0 panel. “For me, I think it’s about insight and when I can start to see something or learn something that causes me to change my behavior. That naturally has value and has meaning, but it’s really hard for most of these devices and apps to be personalized enough that the insight really resonates.”

So what’s the solution?

Some suggest adding more sensors to the devices or coming up with a killer app. Almost all agreed that wearables need to be able to capture contextual information to inspire its users to take action. For example, if you had a really great run, was it because of the music you were listening to or your environment? If you had a bad night’s sleep, was it due to work stress or something else? What were the surrounding factors in a particular moment of activity?

There are signs that companies are headed in that direction. A large piece of Sony’s new Smartband is the Lifelog app, which was designed to help chronicle your daily life. Pressing a button on the band will create a “life bookmark” and remember where you were, who you were with, photos taken and blips of information from that place and time. The data is recorded in the app in a visual journal.

But Martinez proposed one other possibility for the future of wearable technology, and that’s one of an “adaptive wearable” where we move away from transactional tracking to meaningful experimentation.

“I’d like to experiment in a platform that brings in different aspects of the context like images, sound and smells, together with my wearable. Give me 20 elements to play with. Let me decide what I want to track for the next three or four days and then change that and see if it makes me feel different or not,” said Martinez. “Like when I run by the river three times a week, are there common sounds that happen that then have something to do with my heart rate? I’m curious about that. That engages me and keeps me going.”

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