Way more than watches: Where wearables are going

The wearables world seemed limitless at one point: Sensors were on your wrist, in your ears, on fingers and toes, woven into clothing, and snuck into sneakers and ski masks and more.

Lately, wearables means one thing: Watches. Apple Watches in particular.

Sure, the Apple Watch Series 6 is fabulous. But there’s reason to look beyond Apple if you’re investigating wearable tech. There’s an array of intriguing devices that go way beyond watches, helping us train our bodies, stay healthy, and sleep deeper, as well as gadgets that can even enhance our innate skills or give us amazing new powers. Iron Man’s suit is a wearable, after all, right? Here’s what’s ticking in the world of wearables.

Fitness wearables

When it comes to fitness, there are really only two names: Fitbit and Garmin. Fitbit transformed the space with the idea that you could track data with, well, a bit, a little thing you could clip on your belt, stick in your shoe, or wear in a watch band. Former GPS maker Garmin pivoted to fitness gadgets years ago, and despite strong competition from brands like Suunto and Polar (and little upstarts like Samsung), Garmin and has become synonymous with wrist-worn tech. I’ve been wearing a Forerunner 945 for a few months, and its deep training features are crucial in helping me become a better runner.

Garmin

Particularly useful is the Garmin Forerunner 945’s built-in, color topographical maps that show elevation data with summits, streets, and points of interest. You can access these maps before a workout to find a popular place to run or during a workout so you get back to the starting location. I also preload tunes from Spotify directly on the watch, then pair Bluetooth earphones to the watch, meaning I don’t need to strap a phone to my arm, or clutch an MP3 player (or Sony Walkman) in my sweaty hand, to listen to my favorite inspirational beats.

It’s got a pulse oximeter, mainly to help you acclimate to running at high altitudes, although there may be other reasons to study the oxygen saturation of your blood – more on that in a minute. The heart rate sensor takes measurements 24/7 so you can monitor your resting heart rate and use that data to find out if you are overtraining or getting sick. During a workout, the heart rate monitor is cranked up in intensity so it can capture small changes in your heart rate as you exercise. Optical heart rate monitors typically are not as accurate as chest straps but our testing with a Polar H10 chest strap suggests that Garmin is narrowing the gap.

Health wearables

The other side of wearables is health, and we can now monitor a variety of metrics we simply couldn’t keep tabs on 10 years ago. Want to monitor your blood pressure more closely than once every six months at the doctor? Need to keep tabs on your heart rate, your restfulness, how active you are? Want to lose weight, be more mindful, live a better life, be a better you? The Apple Watch Series 6 can help.

The conceit of “completing the rings” was introduced with the very first Apple Watch, and remains a great way to gamify health – meaning it’s solid motivation to go for a walk, meditate for a few minutes, and so on. With tens of millions of Americans working from home or quarantining, we could all use this sort of motivation.

Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Apple takes it to another level with its newest watch, which builds on the pulse oximetry in the Forerunner for medical use … sorta. “Blood Oxygen app measurements are not intended for medical use.” Not my words, but the words of Apple, taken from its explainer page on the use of the blood oxygen (SpO2) measurement tool on the Apple Watch Series 6.

Medically, pulse oximetry checks if there is enough oxygen in the blood, and is important for people who have had a heart attack, or have lung disease, asthma, or other respiratory problems. That’s why SpO2 helps detect severe complications from COVID-1, but using a medical-grade pulse oximeter rather than a consumer product like the Apple Watch. In this article on the benefits of owning such a device at home, Yale School of Medicine’s Dr. Denyse Lutchmansingh said, “unless a patient has true lung disease, there is no need to use pulse oximetry monitoring.”

However, tech like this is opening up new frontiers on an almost daily basis. There was simply no way to monitor SpO2 on any sort of meaningful scale in the past, making it difficult to determine what that number meant exactly. By introducing the feature on a mass scale, Apple has enabled researchers to dig in and ascertain when it’s a warning, and when it’s simply you being you. I think this is wonderful.

Sleep tech

Lots of devices purport to track your sleep. From pillows and watches to apps and phones, a variety of things will tell you how deeply you slept, how effectively, and more. (Nothing yet to record your dreams, but I’m waiting!) Nothing does it as effectively as the Oura Ring. An array of tiny MEMS sensors (microelectricalmechanical sensors) that line the inside of this polished titanium band measure negative thermal coefficient body temperature, 3D acceleration, spatial positioning, and lots more sciencey stuff.

Ora Ring Technology

Thanks to all that tech, the Oura can effectively analyze your sleep, and most important, offer you some guidance. Last night, I slept for 7 hours, 7 minutes, but Oura notes that I was restless and woke up a few times. It’s true! I did! It also notes that I got plenty of REM sleep, but not nearly enough deep sleep, stages that are easy to confuse. Deep sleep is the most restorative and rejuvenating, the app notes. Clearly, there’s a lot for me to work on.

Other smart rings focus on NFC, letting you unlock devices and services with a wave of your palm. And thanks to super-cheap chips, you can get one for just a few bucks. These are functional, but not nearly as meaningful.

Hearables

The surge in popularity for true wireless earbuds – especially those hockey sticks from Apple – has a ton of attention focused on people’s ears these days. But beyond simply blocking the sound of traffic and letting you listen to the latest Reply All podcast, today’s hearables can do stuff. Some can augment your hearing to help you overcome hearing loss, or simply let you focus in on the person across the table in a noisy restaurant. They’re vastly cheaper than hearing aids and don’t require Food and Drug Administration approval.

Cooler still is the real-time translation enabled by machine learning, artificial intelligence, and cloud processing. Several devices offer this tech, including gadgets from Google and Samsung. Heck, you can do it on any Android phone these days. One company, weirdly called Timekettle, takes it a step further, promising offline translation that works even when you’re not connected to the cloud.

While the software is still a little clunky, the incredible power that this offers to break down barriers is simply remarkable. The ability to speak any language, anywhere, at any time – on a hike through the mountains, on a vacation in a foreign country, on a cruise ship in the middle of the ocean – is transformative. And still a dream. Despite the company’s claims, offline translation is still being developed.

Technology can make a difference. But does it do so fairly and equally? None of these devices is cheap, after all; the least expensive one still costs hundreds of dollars. Yet the billions of people we share the planet with face the same challenges: Poor sleep patterns, irregular heart rates, a lack of exercise, and general health concerns. Bringing the power of wearable tech to the larger world is a challenge none of these companies has solved. Will 2021 bring change?

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