12 November 2014 15:49

There has been a lot of hype in the media about wearable tech helping you to live longer, with the Apple Watch being characterised as a comprehensive health and fitness device and articles claiming that it will revolutionize personal fitness as well as the wider health care industry – but are these claims well-founded, or just hype?

The watch was unveiled to an eager public back in September, with heaps of promise and expectations – though tech fans will need to wait until early 2015 to get their hands on one.

One of the watch’s key features will be to utilise existing health and fitness apps in order to better monitor personal performance, by tracking different levels of physical activity. The Fitness app tracks and records general fitness-related activity, such as calories burned and the number of steps taken, etc; the Workout app, on the other hand, tracks physical activity for customised workout training whilst responding to your heart rate and movement, so you could say that it’s like having a personal trainer in your pocket – or on your wrist.

So, is the Apple Watch a panacea for health and fitness? Can it help us stay healthier and fitter? I will attempt to respond to this question by answering the three key points raised in my recent Guardian article on wearable technology design.

How does the Apple Watch make sense of the plethora of information received from the wearer, and how relevant and useful is this data for the user and health professionals?

Although it was initially rumoured that the watch would pack a great range of health-related sensors (i.e. more than 10), the reality is that the production version will only feature an LED heart-rate sensor which “along with an accelerometer and the GPS and Wi Fi in your iPhone, will measure all kinds of physical movement”.

The prospect of having over ten different health-related sensors was a really exciting development as it would have presumably enabled the collection of relevant health data beyond the simplistic tracking of calories burned and the number of steps taken, distinguishing the watch from its predecessors. How the watch will make sense and present the data gathered from the aforementioned sensors is still shrouded in mystery. A question of equal importance is up to what extent the data collected will be of value to health professionals for it to be a truly step changing health device. We will have to wait until the watch is released in order to see how true Apple’s statement about “being able to measure all kinds of physical movement” is, so watch this space.

How wearable is the Apple Watch?

For health or fitness-related applications to work properly, wearable gadgets really need to be worn all of the time. I expect that the fashion statement of sporting an Apple Watch, and its slick design, will alleviate the issue of consumers ‘getting weary of wearing a wearable’ . However, keeping the watch on the wrist day and night will not be possible – not with the first version, anyway. As reported in several articles following the watch launch, the battery life of the device poses a great barrier for a ‘round-the-clock health tracker’ as indications show that a full charge of its battery lasts for just one day, meaning that the wearer has to remove the watch to charge during sleep or other parts of the day, which severely diminishes the health monitoring aspects of the device. The watch then will not provide the 24/7 body monitoring that many thought it would.

Will the Apple Watch have mainstream appeal?

Although one could see the watch being worn by young and fitness-aware consumers, it is not clear how Apple will target the wider market and convince those who are not physically active to purchase – and then wear – one if its watches.

How will it motivate the average Joe and Jane to take up physical exercise in the first place, and follow a healthier lifestyle? This is assuming they each have $349 (the starting price in the US) for the Apple Watch and another £539 for an iPhone 6 to pair it up with - that’s quite an investment for an unproven device.

Therefore, despite the fanfare surrounding the watch’s health and fitness capabilities, we shouldn’t see the device and its apps as a paradigm shift in revolutionising healthcare and turning us all into fitness bunnies just yet. Still, it’s interesting to see big companies like Apple and Samsung invest large chunks of their research and development budgets into this exciting area of wearable technologies, and I hope that in the near future one of them will get it right. Until then, the personal investment required – in both money and effort – is just a little bit too much.

What do you think? Share your comments with us below.

Dr Emmanuel Tsekleves is the programme leader for our new BA Design Interactions degree.


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