New Apple Watch, while highly anticipated, remains predominantly a niche product despite high hopes in the industry. It’s not that the idea is wrong – no one disputes that wearables can improve our lives in many ways. However, to date implementation of the idea has been sloppy, and has failed to deliver on the promise of a brighter future. Now all hopes are pinned on Apple, a company known for its ability to enter a challenging market and change the environment with one impeccable product.
Thus far, smart watches have proved to be nothing more than glorified fitness trackers, and unattractive at that – a user feeling adventurous might entertain himself by speaking into his wrist and imagining himself James Bond. But across the board, manufacturers are targeting the same group -- relatively young people with disposable income who like “cool” products and have no problem spending money on a useless gadget. While this will boost immediate sales, this marketing strategy is unsustainable over the long term. It’s hard to keep the market’s attention if your product is useless, and the numbers demonstrate that the smart watch is useless indeed. Over 50 percent of new smart watch owners will shelve the device forever in the first six months of use - a good indicator of the technology’s real value.
The modern smart watch does virtually nothing. While it alerts the user with notifications, contributes to a slightly geeky appearance and records vital signs, the provided data is not actionable, not in real time anyway. Hopes were much higher. Visions of a futuristic Utopia depict an all-new healthcare system in which each patient is monitored personally and permanently with his/her device, vital signs are meticulously analyzed in real time and recorded, and if something goes wrong the device immediately tells the wearer what to do, also sending an alert to relatives and a physician.
It’s possible to employ a smart watch as a monitoring device, at least for the range of heart conditions, one of the main causes of death. However, this use requires a much better, more mature device with reliable sensors and smart algorithms to process data and convert it into action. And, necessarily, the device will have to be certified by the FDA and HIPAA to be used for healthcare rather than fitness. A product like that would be more than a gimmick; it would truly change lives and it’s absolutely within our theoretical reach. We might need slightly better sensors and a champion to break through the miles and miles of red tape, but this is all within the realm of possibility.
There are efforts under way in this direction. For example, the FDA has approved the iRhythm Zio Patch. The device can be considered a wearable, as it’s attached to a patient’s body in a manner that is non-encumbering. There are also practical projects trying to use data obtained from wearables to improve productivity in the business environment - companies like Equivital or Humanyze have shown very interesting results. Finally, there are projects trying to use big data to clear the noise and errors from what is obtained from existing sensors. Samsung’s Simband is very interesting since it provides a large amount of raw biometric data for developers around the world to play with and improve the algorithms. However, it’s to say that no modern smart watches provide enough functionality and reliability to truly fulfill the task. And in all fairness, fitness-related functionality is not much better than of the sport watches we have worn for the last two decades. This is unfortunate, as according to research by PriceWaterhouseCoopers, the public would very much prefer a modern sophisticated wearable to any specialized medical device. If a medical device is necessary, it might as well have some bells and whistles.
Sadly, Apple hasn’t achieved any of this with the Apple Watch 1.0, and it’s still a glorified fitness tracker, albeit a slightly more attractive one. It will generate the same results as other smart watches on the market. Affluent consumers will buy it, wear it to a party once or twice, and shelve it a few weeks later. However, all hope is not lost. Leaked reports show that Apple wanted to make the Apple Watch better, but couldn’t. Yet. According to the industry rumors, the problem is that suitable sensors were hard to find, and therefore Apple couldn’t create a more useful product. Without good sensors, the device was unlikely to achieve certification. If Apple doesn’t stop trying, there’s a good chance that the Apple Watch 2.0 will be an actual disruptive medical device capable of truly managing health.
The inclusion of the Research Kit might be considered an indication of the move in the right direction. While failing to provide personalized healthcare, the data gathered by the kit can without a doubt be used to calibrate big data algorithms, a necessary element of healthcare in the future. It looks like the foundation for tomorrow is being built after all, and a lot of leading healthcare research centers are on board.
In case Apple can’t succeed perhaps Samsung, its strongest competitor, will do so with its Simband program, which offers open hardware architecture incorporating numerous possible sensors. All in all, it looks like the industry is moving in the right direction and will soon reach the first stop on the route to the future. But it’s not there quite yet, at least not with Apple Watch.