Smart Watches – a tool for improved health?

A small device, constantly worn close to the body and used with just the slightest of interactions: The smart watch is on the brink of changing our lives as much as smartphones did a few years ago. The smart watch can – among others – keep track of our physical activity and is a valuable tool in improving our health. But what is the state of the art, and are measurements by the smart watch really as helpful as producers and marketers want to make us believe?

“Wearables” as the gadget of the future

With average usage times of just seven seconds, one of the dominating trends concerning smart watches are the micro-interactions that they offer. Apart from that, the “quantified self” is one of the trends identified by Tom Quast and Bjørn Salskov from Creative Vikings. An example of a feature that utilizes these trends is Apple Fitness, which offers the “3 circles” that show how far users of the smart watch are in their daily fitness and activity routine. However, defining what this activity routine means is not that simple. Physical activity is hard to measure.

The problem with smart watches tracking physical activity is the term “physical activity” itself. According to Jan Christian Brønd from Syddansk University, physical activity is a multidimensional term. Our bodies are “physically active” during almost everything that we do - no matter if we are sitting, running, standing, or working out. There are different dimensions of activity that play a role: intensity, length, frequency and the kind of movement that is being done. One hour of workout in the gym means different things for different people, depending on their body type, physical condition and ambitions.
That means that apps that are designed to track “activity” might produce unreliable data. So what does this mean for smart watches, and how can we be sure that what the smart watches and other fitness gadgets are measuring is really what they intend to measure?

Counting steps as a compromise

One way to measure activity is counting steps, a measure that has been used a long time by now. Smartphone apps measuring this have been around for several years. Smart watches are now also supposed to keep track of people’s physical activity by providing insight into the number of steps taken each day and comparing this against a goal number. But here the same question prevails: how accurate are these measurements?

In his presentation during the Internet Week Denmark 2016, Brønd presented research that focused on the accuracy of these “wearables” when counting steps. The findings of the research suggest that the step counting functions of wearable gadgets are moderately reliable and valid. However, there are some challenges remaining. Even though wearable gadgets like smart watches are a lot closer to the body constantly, there are still times when they are taken off. Furthermore, results get inaccurate when a lot of “unconventional” movement is involved such as jumping on a trampoline and moving on very soft ground.

The vision: A digital health care paradise

There are multiple challenges ahead to further the development of the smart watch. There are ethical issues and data protection considerations to undertake.

While the optimisation process is still going on, the visions for what our health care might look like one day are manifold. Smart watches could hypothetically be used in therapy; apps could take the place of doctors and furthermore provide users with everyday advice on their diet and fitness. Both could be suited to our genetic predispositions.

How soon all of this is going to happen is unclear; but all of these visions and projects are already very colourful and in process. And while data collection itself might still be imperfect and without direction, researchers and businesses alike are working on making the future one where the smart watch plays a significant role in furthering our health.

This article is written based on the event: Smart Watches - Fitness Gadget or even Research Tool?