Wearable Woes: Apple Watch as a Fitness Tracker
For the past year, we’ve been using various activity-tracking apps for iPhone to see how they interact with HealthKit, and to assess how well they actually work. Lots of fitness-oriented 3rd-party apps are out there, with great features: Argus runs in the background and turns my iPhone 5 into a pedometer, making it easy to obsess over getting 10,000 steps a day.
MapMyWalk includes “yard work” as an activity option, giving me a much better estimate of how many calzones I can eat after a grueling day in the dirt.
And Strava lets me compete with other cyclists for the best time on my favorite bike routes. Best of all, these 3rd-party apps can all automatically write data to Apple’s HealthKit ecosystem, giving me a big picture view of all my activity.
Naturally, I was excited to see how all of this would play out on the Apple Watch – instead of making sure I’m wearing something with pockets, or otherwise affixing my phone to my body, could I instead leave the phone in a patch of shade, and let the Apple Watch track my activity? Could I look at my watch and see how many steps I’ve taken using the Argus app? I assumed that would be the case.
Alas! We’re sorely disappointed. Here, in no particular order, are our gripes with the Apple Watch as a fitness tracker.
Differing accounts of activity
One issue we noticed almost immediately with the Apple Watch is that it doesn’t seem to get an accurate read on activity. I went for a quick spin around the neighborhood on my mountain bike with Strava running on my phone, while also logging an outdoor bike ride on the Watch’s native “Workout” app. For the sake of comparison, I also brought along my Garmin bike computer, which uses a combination of GPS, a wheel sensor, and a barometric altimeter. Trust but verify, right?
Garmin and Strava were in almost perfect agreement, clocking me at a little over 12 mph on average. The Apple Watch, on the other hand, recorded my average speed as 6.2 mph (barely fast enough to stay upright.) This may be due, in part, to the full two minutes I spent trying to end the workout on the Apple Watch. Did I mention the touchscreen is not very responsive? Or what a pain it is (not to mention dangerous) to try to jab at the watchface, while riding a bicycle?
The problem with 3rd-party apps on Apple Watch
Currently, 3rd-party apps like Argus and Strava can’t see the Apple Watch’s accelerometer, heart rate sensors, or other hardware features, like the “digital crown” (that’s the little knob that looks like it should wind the watch, but instead is used for navigation).
So for now at least, 3rd-party apps have to rely on the phone for their data, and the Watch is just a mirroring device.
Here’s what that looks like in practice: If I put down my phone and walk around, Argus can’t count my steps – only the Watch’s native Activity app does. But in Apple’s ecosystem, the number of steps isn’t visible on the watch itself — only in the Health app on the connected iPhone, and even then they’re not updated in real-time as they are with Argus.
The 3rd-party apps would be a lot more useful if their developers had full access to Apple’s Watch API (Application Programming Interface) before the watch started shipping.
However, developers are evidently getting access. On June 8th, Apple previewed the second edition of WatchOS , finally granting developers access to the various sensors embedded in the watch. The new OS will roll out sometime this fall, so don’t count on seeing better functionality in time for Century Season and summer hiking trips.
But we can hold out hope that someday the Apple Watch might play nicer with 3rd-party apps.
Apple’s apps take priority
For me, the most frustrating thing is that Apple Watch’s native apps automatically overwrite the data from other apps in HealthKit – so when I logged 200 calories burned during a 45-minute bike ride on Strava using my phone, and the Apple Watch calculated the ride as 0 minutes of activity and 53 calories, guess which version got recorded in the Health app? Same goes for that ride where the Watch cut my average speed in half, plus that full day of yard work that resulted in 0 active minutes.
This is not likely to go over well with anyone who cares enough to track their activity — let alone competitive athletes, for whom activity tracking can become a compulsion. (Just ask us.)
On the bright side, because the Apple Watch calculates motion while strapped to your wrist, it’s fairly easy to make up the difference while eating, drinking, or even sleeping (I wore the watch to bed one night and it didn’t track my sleep, but it did log 54 steps.)
In a nutshell
As a fitness device, the Apple Watch isn’t good for much more than reminding you to stand up and move around every once in a while. (Even when you’re driving, and using the watch for navigation!)
We sincerely hope that the Apple Watch will get better as 3rd-party developers finally get their hands on the tools they need to develop compelling apps for it.
As it stands currently, the Apple Watch still feels like a beta test and pales in comparison to other, less expensive activity trackers – and what’s worse, it completely throws a wrench into the HealthKit ecosystem by automatically overwriting the data from other apps.
Every time I attempt to track a workout on the Apple Watch, I can’t help but feel like Steve Jobs is rolling in his grave. But at least he’s getting activity points for it!
For part one of our Apple Watch series, click here.
Apple Watch First Impressions: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
We jumped on the bandwagon recently and ordered an Apple Watch for the lab. Here are our first impressions after a couple weeks with the device – check back for an in-depth review of the Watch’s potential as a fitness tracker, and also a medical device.
Useful in certain (indoor) settings
The Apple Watch uses Bluetooth 4.0 to communicate with the iPhone, which means you can only get about 30 feet away from your phone before losing the connection. This also means that using the Apple Watch will drain your phone battery before lunch. Taking the Apple Watch out for a day of hiking? Don’t forget your phone, and a portable charger (or two).
Things are a bit better at home, when the Apple Watch can use a known WiFi network to improve its range slightly. This means that when your phone connects automatically to your home WiFi network, it can send signals to the Apple Watch over that network instead of Bluetooth. For practical purposes, this means I can leave my phone charging in the house while I’m out tending the garden; as long as I stay within WiFi range I can take calls from my watch.
Perhaps the most useful thing about the Apple Watch is that it can page your missing phone (as long as it’s within Bluetooth range). Of course, it’s just as easy to do this from any Apple device using “Find my iPhone,” so it probably doesn’t justify dropping $500 on a watch for that feature alone.
Too tethered to the iPhone; not really useful as a timepiece
The Watch has little functionality when the phone is out of range, or locked. All too often I look at my wrist to see this:
As a timepiece, the Apple Watch is hardly useful, because the screen goes black after a few seconds. There’s no discreetly checking the time during that meeting that you didn’t think was going to go so long on an Apple Watch – it requires an almost dramatic twist of the wrist (and sometimes a poke with the other hand) to wake up the screen.
Twice the alerts
While it’s handy to be able to answer calls on the watch when your phone is out of reach, I found it incredibly stressful to have two devices ringing whenever a call came in. And I started wondering: Are we really without our phones often enough to justify such a cacophony of alerts every time? I can only imagine how this will play out in office buildings and movie theaters.
Too many noises; not enough context
For me, the defining moment with the Apple Watch came shortly after I strapped it on my wrist and headed down the interstate. I started navigation from my phone, and the Watch picked it up and started making turn signal noises every time I approached a turn. The layering of sound effects over my own turn signal, coupled with the verbal directions on my phone, was irritating to say the least — and even though the Watch displayed the next turn on its screen, the small size made it difficult to see while driving.
And then, it got worse. While hurtling down I-25 at 75 mph, I felt a buzz on my wrist and glanced at the watch:
Maybe I expected too much from the Apple Watch, but I think a device that a) is giving me directions down the freeway and b) contains an accelerometer, ought to know better than to cheerfully remind me to stand up at that particular moment.
Next time: Apple Watch as a Fitness Tracker
We’ll need to devote a whole other post to this topic, because let’s face it – there are a lot of problems here, and snark can be fun. With all the excitement about HealthKit and the Apple Watch, we hoped for a device that would seamlessly measure and record data from all our activities.
This isn’t that device. Instead, the Watch is basically a glorified pedometer that won’t register a 10 mile bike ride as exercise, but will award me fitness points for an hour of drinking wine. Stay tuned!
While Visions of Wearables Danced In Their Heads
For those of us headed to the annual Consumer Electronics Show, which happens a scant four days after the New Year, the holiday season necessarily includes shaking the network to get a deeper look at what’s planned.
You won’t be surprised at the outlook, but here goes.
First: UltraHD/4K is the new 3D, which had been the new HD, before the marketplace thud that hastened it out the door. The refrain this year, albeit not necessarily from the CE side: There’s more to better pictures and sound than “just” the television set.
This year, watch for UHD lingo studded with impressively nerdy terms like “high dynamic range,” “color gamut,” and “bit interleave depth.”
All explain additional ways in which innovation is happening throughout the rest of the video ecosystem — think cameras, production gear, and the technologies of storytelling. If you go, you’ll see it in the way colors look. Blacks look downright velvety, reds look royal, greens mossy. The picture overall is brighter. Much brighter.
(Talk to any hardcore video engineer — HDR and what’s happening with color and brightness is as “wow” as when standard definition video went high def.)
Second: Wearables, coupled with a new-ish term — “cognitive computing” — described as “mobile devices that anticipate your actions based on who you are, who you’re with, and make decisions for you.” (Great…)
While it’s rare that the dazzle and pop of CES fare is directly relevant to this industry, wearables and cognitive computing do open a plausible stream of thought: What decisions could be made for us, that improve our media-centric life?
Note that it’s likely we’ll see more “smart clothing” this year. Already we’ve seen a blazer, designed for tourists in New York and Paris, and equipped with LED lights on the sleeves, and buzzers in the shoulder pads. The thinking: Stop looking at the blue dot on the screen! Your right arm will blink and buzz when you need to turn right.
Again. CES is CES.
Third: Smart homes, smart cars, driverless cars, smart things — sensors will sustain in show floor glitz. Entire pavilions will be cordoned off to showcase the Internet of Things, always a source of weird and interesting gadgetry, but rarely directly relevant to whatever it is we’re calling the cable industry these days.
Regardless, there’s nothing quite like the Consumer Electronics Show. This will be my 15th consecutive year as (tres dorky) guide for CTAM’s tours, and while I generally dread it on the front end, I’m always glad about how it went, it at the end.
We’ll keep the highlights coming.
This column originally appeared in the Platforms section of Multichannel News.
Technology Nobody Needs
Along with tracking the more promising gadgets and technologies gracing the Internet of Things, we keep a notebook in Evernote titled “The Book of Bad Ideas.” That is where I send all of the eye-rolling, cringe-inducing nightmares that crop up during my daily web scrape. Here are a few of the highlights:
Selfie Sombrero (Acer x Christian Cowan-Sanluis) $980
This glittery, obscenely expensive pink hat-and-tablet combo, which first appeared at London Fashion Week, was designed by the young Dutch designer Christian Cowan-Sanluis. It rotates 360 degrees, allowing you to find your best selfie angle. In case you were wondering, this was inspired by a similar outfit (minus the dangling tablet) that the designer created for Lady Gaga last year.
Quirky Egg Minder ($49)
If you have egg anxiety, fear not: The Quirky Egg Minder is here. This connected egg tray works with a smartphone app to track how many eggs you have, when each individual egg was placed in the tray, and when each egg is set to reach its expiration date. You can even check on your egg tray from the grocery store to see if you need to buy more eggs, and receive text alerts when your eggs are about to expire! As an urban chicken keeper, I strongly recommend investing in the low-tech solution of a few backyard hens and an egg skelter instead.
Sony Smart Wig (prototype only, price TBD)
This one may never see the light of day, but it’s so wonderfully ridiculous that we just can’t leave it off this list. Sony filed a patent at the end of last year for a smart wig, capable of such functions as navigation, health monitoring, and EEG tracking. Even better, Sony’s patent covers a Presentation Wig, designed for use with PowerPoint. The wig allows the user to control a laser pointer with a wiggle of the eyebrows, and advance to the next slide by tugging on the sideburns. Sadly, we’re not joking.
We:Ex Navigate Jacket (price TBD)
The designers of the Navigate jacket are very concerned about the risks of pedestrians using GPS on their phones. Citing an increase in pedestrian traffic accidents involving smartphones, they’ve developed jackets that will lead you around town using LEDs on the sleeves and vibrating shoulder pads. Because we can safely assume that all those smartphone-related pedestrian accidents involve someone intently staring at Google Maps, rather than checking Facebook or emailing the boss. And while you can use earbuds to get audio navigation cues from your phone, surely it will aid your exploration of the city if your sleeves are flashing and your jacket is abuzz with haptic feedback.
Aside from being ridiculous, the Navigate jacket is city-specific, meaning you can’t buy one and use it wherever you go — currently there are versions being tested for New York City, Paris, and Sydney. We don’t have a price tag just yet, but we think the idea of purchasing a distinctive-looking electronic jacket just to get directions to the Louvre is absurd. If you want to stand out as a tourist, this is probably a good bet.
airVR, by Metatecture, is a virtual reality headset that completed its round of funding on Kickstarter on October 16. This project “leverages iOS Retina hardware that is already in millions of peoples’ hands.” In other words, it involves strapping an iPad Mini to your head.
To be fair, it seems this device might actually have a few practical uses – one of the apps, diplopia, claims to help correct lazy and crossed eyes. But we just can’t get over the image of this guy cavorting around with an iPad strapped to his face.
Oh, and they make one for iPhone too:
Satis Smart Toilet ($4,000 no longer available)
This connected toilet, made by Lixil (now owned by American Standard) is no longer on the market – and for good reason. The toilet connected to a smartphone app via WiFi and Bluetooth, though we’re still not clear on why this was a selling point. In case you want to track usage? Or flush from your phone? (Never mind, we don’t really want to know.)
But the steep price tag and questionable utility were not the worst things about the Satis Smart Toilet. A Bluetooth PIN of “0000” was hard-coded into the app, making it possible for anyone with the MySatis app to control any toilet within range. According to a security advisory issued in August of 2013, “an attacker can cause the toilet to repeatedly flush, raising the water usage and therefore utility cost to its owner. Attackers could cause the unit to unexpectedly open/close the lid, activate bidet or air-dry functions, causing discomfort or distress to user.” We’ll just leave you with that mental image….
The Wearables I Want
Wearable buzz is hitting a frenzied pitch in the consumer marketplace. Here in the lab, we’re early adopters, and not just of over-the-top video options. Leslie’s in year six of walking 10,000 steps a day, for instance, starting with a Fitbit in 2008, and has walked several different fitness bands into the ground (including the recently sampled Polar Loop, returned within a week); I’ve been wearing sensors for longer than iPhones have been on the market.
A bit of disclosure: I’ve had Type 1 (autoimmune) diabetes since childhood, and back in 2007 I got my first CGM (Continuous Glucose Monitor) — a system that tracks the glucose levels under my skin. There are two companies making CGMs for the US market currently – Medtronic and Dexcom – and both systems work essentially the same way:
A disposable sensor, changed out every week, has a small wire that sits below the skin and measures glucose in the interstitial fluid. This sensor connects to a reusable transmitter, which sends raw data from the sensor to a receiver, which in turn uses an algorithm to generate a graph of estimated blood glucose levels.
CGMs don’t replace blood glucose testing — they require fingersticks for calibration, and there’s a bit of a lag between the sensor and actual blood glucose levels – but the trend information is incredibly useful.
Imagine you’re driving a car that has no windows or mirrors, only a sunroof – and you have to keep popping your head out to get a brief glimpse of the curves in the road and the hazards in your way. When I got my first CGM, I suddenly found myself in a car with windows for the first time in over 10 years, able to spot trends in my glucose levels and head off potentially dangerous lows and highs.
But all of this comes at a price – one sensor, good for about a week, runs about $75-100. Transmitters are reusable but need to be replaced every 6 to 12 months, to the tune of about $1400 per year. Then there’s the receiver, which is an insulin pump in the case of Medtronic (roughly $6,000) or a standalone device in the case of Dexcom (about $1,000). Fortunately more insurance companies are starting to see the value of covering this technology, but the out-of-pocket burden is still incredible.
And several expensive CGM systems later, I’m still using pretty much the same technology I had 7 years ago. Back then, I was using a Palm Treo. The word “app” was not a part of the mainstream vocabulary.
Medical technology moves at a snail’s pace because there’s a lot of red tape in place to ensure that things actually work before they’re put on the market. This is why the glucose sensors and insulin pump that I wear 24/7 are still pretty much unchanged – every little feature addition is something that needs to be tested and retested to ensure it doesn’t introduce some unforeseen risk for the end user. That’s understandable, but depressing, especially compared to the pace of wearable innovation.
That’s why it’s quite a jarring contrast to follow this new explosion of wearable health devices, because the production cycle moves much quicker without the whole FDA clearance bit – but there’s also a big risk that these new devices won’t actually work as advertised.
Leslie’s experience with several Fitbits, Nike Fuelbands, the Polar Loop and a gamut of digital pedometers confirms this, at least on a “steps” level. Most bracelet-styled pedometers, for example, don’t count correctly when the “wearable arm” is connected to ground in any way — pulling a suitcase (she does a lot of that), walking dogs on leashes (that too), or holding on when on a treadmill.
She reports that there’s invariably “sync issues,” which highlight another unanticipated ogre of tracking your active life: The botched streak. The Nike Fuelband design team brought this to the foreground with its quirky little app-side dude, named “Fuelie,” which bounces and squeals on every new accomplishment — like the number of consecutive days of hitting “goal.”
Then, the Fuelband breaks (usually within eight months, and always the same way: It shows as charged when plugged in, then displays the “charge me” icon immediately upon removing power.)
Suddenly, you’ve lost your “streak,” but not because you didn’t reach your steps goal. As Leslie puts it: “And at that moment, you realize that your life is freakishly controlled by a little dancing digital icon” — in her case, a 249-day streak — because the only way to correct the streak is to actually pick up the phone and call Nike. (Which has the best customer service of all of them, she adds. But still.)
On the consumer-grade medical wearable end, there’s the GoBe Wristband – a glorified pedometer that claims to be able to calculate calories consumed by unobtrusively tracking glucose levels under the skin.
I’m skeptical about this one for a number of reasons, but mainly this: If you don’t have diabetes, your blood glucose levels won’t fluctuate much at all, even if you have 5 gallons of ice cream and a barrel of root beer for lunch — so the whole premise of tracking calorie consumption this way doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Yet, over 4,000 people signed up for a GoBe Wristband on Indiegogo, pouring about $200 each into technology that probably doesn’t work as advertised.
As someone who’s lived with diabetes for most of my life, my data is for the most part accurate, but I need it to be seamless. Right now, I have to connect all my devices (CGM, glucose meter, insulin pump) to my computer and download the data, then compare a bunch of different reports in order to make adjustments to my treatment regimen.
Instead, I want everything – my CGM, my insulin pump, my glucose meter, my bike computer, my pedometer, and my desk chair – to send data automatically and wirelessly to a single source, where it can be analyzed for larger trends without taking up my whole day and making my brain hurt.
These devices should all work together to keep track of the larger patterns and the smaller victories, to simplify living with a chronic illness and keep burnout at a minimum.
My phone could alert me to the fact that I’ve been running high in the evenings and may need to tweak my insulin dosage, and then congratulate me when I keep my glucose levels in range for a full 24 hours (known among CGM users as the elusive “no hitter”).
And when I start stepping up the intensity of my workouts, and my blood glucose levels are likely to end up in the trenches overnight, maybe my phone could offer to set an alarm?
With big players like Samsung and Apple now building frameworks to combine data from 3rd party apps, we’re hopeful that some of the major hurdles with respect to security can be cleared. Maybe then medical devices can start talking to our other gadgets, and we’ll finally be on the way to having wearables that simplify our lives, instead of just adding angst.