While wearable fitness technology — from Motiv rings to bras that can track cardiovascular disease — has been gaining popularity, there are consumer segments that haven’t been enamored with the new tech: women and minorities.
The issue, research shows, is that these tracking devices are not sophisticated and reliable enough for women and people of color.
“It would be important for researchers to make the technology more accurate for all people,” Dustin Weiler, a former lab researcher and research assistant at the University of Louisville, told Karma. “The future for the industry should be where the technology accounts equally for everyone, like those with lighter skin tones.”
Companies like Motiv, founded in 2013, try to provide a fashionable and innovative approach to tracking fitness for all with its ring sensors.
Weiler believes technologies like the Motiv ring are less invasive from the users’ perspectives. Despite its minimalistic style and its ability to let the individual know how close he or she is to a required heart rate, Motiv also has its pitfalls of lagging behind in features and its cost.
Most of the wearable fitness trackers in the market have become less reliable when tracking heart rates of people of color or darker skin tones, according to a recent study. Even major players like Fitbit and Samsung a cheaper heartbeat sensor called green light that has a short wavelength easily absorbed by melanin and thus difficult to track on darker skin tones.
Wearables also face a common problem of glitches when users wear the devices or move in a particular way.
“For example, if you wear the Fitbit or the band throughout the day, the periods that you are at rest for long periods of time the Fitbit might recognize as resting heart rate and track it as if you are sleeping,” Weiler said. “If your arm isn’t moving at work for a long period of time, that can also affect the data. There are still issues with the technology not tracking steps and sleep accurately because the band needs to be worn a certain way.”
According to some reviewers, while companies like the Xiaomi MI band lack a built-in GPS and the Huawei band struggles to track sleep accurately, WHOOP and Samsung’s Galaxy Fit face low battery lives.
Despite these technical struggles, the fitness wearable industry is growing.
According to the research company Gartner Inc., there were a total of 178.9 million shipments of wearable technology in 2018, and there will be a 25.8% increase in shipments by the end of this year.
Weiler doesn’t see the technical issues related to wearables having a major impact on sales.
“In my research, we saw that it is a very small difference between what the actual heart rate is and what the PPG-based tools like Fitbit tell us,” he said. “As long as there’s no significant difference between what it actually is and what the device tells us for some people, I think the devices do a pretty good job.”
Wearables devices revenue worldwide is increasing from $26 billion dollars in 2018 to an estimated $34 billion this year and projections predict it to go to $73 billion by 2022, according to Statista.
“If the inaccuracy isn’t significant, it may not affect most users as much,” Rob Morea, a certified strength and conditioning specialist, told Karma. “In a gym, the steps and calories are more important to people. If the devices are seen as training tools but not monitoring tools, then they might not care.”
Despite the growth in popularity amongst the major leaders in the industry like Fitbit, which is expected to sell 105 million devices in 2022, and Garmin, whose ForeRunner is considered one of the most accurate heart rate monitor amongst the wristband fitness trackers, experts like Weiler believe that there is still room to advance the accuracy and technology.
“While the PPG bands and devices are easily accessible, ECG-based devices are much more accurate,” Weiler said. ECG, or electrocardiography, sensors are usually used on devices worn around the chest area, measuring electric signals that control the expansion of heart chambers. “It’s really hard to know if PPG devices are ever going to be the most accurate possible. That’s why ECG devices, usually for athletes, provide the most amount of trust and accuracy as possible,” he said.
The issue with ECG technology lies in its invasiveness and inability to be comfortable and cheaper.
But companies like Bloomer Health Tech, founded in 2017, try to innovate with ECG technology by having ECG sensors on a bra for women to track heart rate accurately.
“Current devices to collect data are really uncomfortable, especially for women. They are also very hard to integrate into our daily lives,” Alicia Rodriguez, CEO of Bloomer Health Tech, said at a TED Talk. “This is because for hundreds of years we’ve been designing heart treatment using men and male animals. Clearly there’s a gender gap in healthcare.”
With a growing younger community being more health-conscious than previous generations, the increase in wearables is also growing and thus requires even more research and creative innovation for accuracy.
“With a younger population, we have a tendency to trust technology more. We give credit to these wearables because we trust the data the technology provides,” Weiler said. “Having more of these companies emerging is a good thing and it breed competition for innovation. What we need is more research into innovating PPG technology.”
“Today, we don’t understand women cardiac health and we’re unaware of women symptoms which are different. More women die of health disease than men,” Rodriguez said. “The combination of health, fashion, and technology is the future of health monitoring.”