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Why the Apple iWatch won’t be sparking a health and fitness revolution

New but not as shiny as sold. Martin uit Utrecht, CC BY-NC

Why the Apple iWatch won’t be sparking a health and fitness revolution

There has been a lot of hype in the media about how wearable tech will help you to live longer. At the forefront of this is the Apple iWatch, which the company characterises as a comprehensive health and fitness device that will revolutionise personal fitness as well as the wider healthcare industry. All very bold claims – but are they well-founded, or just hype?

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

One of the iWatch’s key features will be to use existing health and fitness apps to 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, while the Workout app tracks physical activity during customised workouts and responds to your heart rate and movement.

Making sense of the data

So how does the iWatch make sense of the 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 iWatch would pack a great range of health-related sensors (more than ten), the reality is that the end 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 more than ten different health-related sensors was a really exciting development as it would have presumably enabled the collection of relevant health data – beyond simply tracking the number of calories burned and the number of steps taken, which various of the iWatch’s predecessors, including Samsung’s Gear range, are already doing.

So how the iWatch will make sense and present the data gathered from the aforementioned sensors is still shrouded in mystery. A question of equal importance is to what extent the data collected will be of value to health professionals for it to be a truly step-changing health device – and to answer this we’ll need to know both whether the data is actually of any use to health professionals and whether it will be accessible to them. We will have to wait until the iWatch is released in order to test Apple’s statement about “being able to measure all kinds of physical movement”, so watch this space.

How wearable is the iWatch?

For health or fitness-related applications to work properly, wearable gadgets really need to be worn constantly. I expect that the slick design of the iWatch, which makes sporting it a fashion statement in itself, will mitigate against consumers “getting weary of wearing a wearable”.

But keeping the iWatch on the wrist day and night will not be possible – not with the first version, anyway. As reported in several articles following its launch, the battery life of the device will make it difficult for the watch to be a round-the-clock health tracker because it appears that a full charge of its battery lasts for just one day. So the wearer will either have to take the iWatch off to charge it during sleep or at other times of the day, which means it won’t provide the 24/7 body monitoring that many thought it would.

Research has also suggested that wearers are likely to stop using activity trackers after just six months.

What about mainstream appeal?

Although one could see the iWatch 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 one – and then wear it.

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 £220 (or US$349, the starting price in the US) for the iWatch and another £539 ($853 for an iPhone 6 to pair it up with – that’s quite an investment for an unproven device.

So despite the fanfare surrounding the iWatch’s health and fitness capabilities, we shouldn’t see the device and its apps as something will revolutionise healthcare and turn us all into fitness bunnies just yet. Still, it’s interesting to see big companies like Apple, Samsung and perhaps now Microsoft 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.

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