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BEYOND FITNESS TRACKERS: WHAT’S NEXT IN HEALTH TECH — AND WHAT’S AFTER THAT

20 Jun 2014

By Taylor Hatmaker

Health Tech

No offense to that Fuelband you’re sporting, but fitness trackers are about to jump the shark.

Plagued by recalls, battery life woes and connectivity issues, fitness trackers still haven’t given consumers a compelling reason to cozy up to yet another device. For one, smartphones are smarter — and we’re glued to them already. Packed to the gills with mobile health-friendly sensors, and even dedicated motion co-processors in the case of Apple’s iPhone 5S, smartphones make one-trick fitness gizmos look like glorified pedometers.

“They’re nowhere near where they could be given the available technology,” said Chaotic Moon co-founder William Hurley. “Given how long some of these have been in the market, there’s just not an excuse for why they aren’t a lot further along.”

The first major generation of mobile health trackers may have hit a hurdle or two, but for companies willing to think outside the box — or rip the box up altogether — the future looks bright. And weird.

Hurley believes that ingestible sensors (yes, the kind you swallow) are poised to make a big impact, expanding today’s narrow definition of the “quantified self” to the quantified stomach. And that’s just the start.

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FITNESS TRACKERS JUST SCRATCH THE SURFACE

When we get past calorie counting wristbands, the business of tracking the patterns encoded in the human body explodes into a massive, mostly unexplored arena. There, affordable devices replicate the accuracy of hospital-grade technology with unparalleled ease. Happily, that next-wave of products — the one that whisks us beyond short-sighted wearables — is already well on the way

For smarter personal wellness tracking, companies like Withings are already innovating beyond the wrist. In its lineup: a clever wireless scale that charts historical weight data over time, a wireless blood pressure monitor that zaps its data to the cloud, and the Pulse O2, a fitness tracker that keeps an eye on heart rate and blood oxygen levels too. When you’re done poring that massive body of body-data, Kolibree’s connected toothbrush can track your dental health and hygiene habits too. If you’re more worried about what goes on upstairs, so to speak, getting your hands on a cheap, robust (and dare we say stylish) brain-monitoring headband is remarkably easy these days. Meet InteraXon’s Muse, an impressively consumer-friendly seven sensor EEG device that will be widely available in the coming months after a successful crowdfunding campaign.

The lightweight, comfortable Muse headband encourages its wearer to test their mind control powers, harnessing various mental states to “win” games in iOS or Android. What feels like mind control (moving a virtual on-screen depiction of a sun with your brain, say) is actually an elaborate data visualization of quantifiable mental states, from chilled-out Alpha waves to problem-solving Beta waves. Not merely a useful meditation novelty,  InteraXon’s $299 Muse could even help anxiety and depression sufferers guide themselves to less distressing mental states through daily practice.

Beyond general wellness tracking, the smartphone proves the perfect diagnostic and monitoring hub for chronic conditions like diabetes and heart conditions, both physician and patient-side. A blood glucose monitor made by iBGStar syncs its data with your iPhone and earned FDA approval back in 2012. A company called AliveCor sells a heart monitor  that sticks onto the back of an Android or iOS device and gives traditional ECG machines a run for their money. And then there’s the CellScope Oto, a connected digital otoscope and just one part of the company’s vision to “create the world’s first smartphoneenabled digital first aid kit.”

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BEYOND NEXT: CYBORG EYES AND NINJA POLYMERS

Ready to think even further beyond the box? Google certainly is. A contact lens equipped with a miniaturized glucose sensor tuned to  tears is just one of the latest prototypes out of Google[x], the “moonshot” division that dreamed up Google Glass.

“We’re in discussions with the FDA, but there’s still a lot more work to do to turn this technology into a system that people can use,” Google noted in smart contact lens announcement. “We’re not going to do this alone: we plan to look for partners who are experts in bringing products like this to market.”

“At Google[x], we wondered if miniaturized electronics — think: chips and sensors so small they look like bits of glitter, and an antenna thinner than a human hair — might be a way to crack the mystery of tear glucose and measure it with greater accuracy.”

At the intersection of health and even more miniaturized technology, IBM’s nanomedicine initiative is pushing the company outside the bounds of microprocessors and semiconductors, extending its nano-knowledge to medicine’s steepest uphill battles. IBM’s so-called “ninja polymers” could treat everything from HIV and tuberculosis to Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, all by providing novel methods of drug transport at the molecular level.

HELPING DATA TELL ITS STORY

Zany health accessories attract a lot of buzz, but they aren’t the whole picture. The emergence of faster, better, smarter digital health hardware platforms means major opportunities for businesses with an interest in exploring the high tech healthcare market. When health hardware manufacturers perfect their respective gizmos, a fleet of new devices will be hungry for apps that are hungry for data.

According to Chaotic Moon’s Hurley, that turning point is just around the corner. “I think the opportunity is already here. Someone is going to come in and take over this market. I would say Apple is a front-runner because of the patience they’ve had… If this comes to pass, then there will be hundreds of new opportunities for software developers through a very strong existing ecosystem.”

Few, if any, devices have managed to pull off a dual feat of elegant hardware and smart-yet-simple software. After all, what’s a glucose-sensing contact lens or an at-home EEG headband without something software-side to catch and sort the sprawl of otherwise meaningless numbers?

We hope that when the dust settles, the digital health players that emerge reject a reliance on proprietary failware and opt instead to swing open the doors on innovative, integrative new software experiences. If we can leverage smart software to parse that brave new tangle of numbers, we’ll know more about ourselves than we ever could have imagined.

We’re ready for the future now — even if that means swallowing a sensor or two. Who needs a jetpack when your toothbrush syncs to the cloud?

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