The ever-growing “internet of things” is the natural offspring of the post-PC era. Increasingly, we live in a world of smart devices that can communicate both the state and behavior of objects with other smart devices. Not surprisingly, physical health has been a focus of many manufacturers in this budding tech sector. To illustrate just how much attention is being paid to health, walk into any Apple store, find the accessories section, and note the following:
- FitBit Flex Wireless Activity + Sleep Tracker (for tracking sleep and calories burned)
- Nike FuelBand (for tracking calories burned)
- Withings Smart Body Analyzer (for tracking weight and body fat)
- Jawbone UP (for tracking sleep and giving a silent alarm)
- Withings Smart Blood Pressure Monitor (for tracking pulse and blood pressure)
- Lark UnAlarm Clock and Sleep Sensor (for tracking sleep patterns)
- iHealth Wireless Pulse Oximeter (for tracking blood oxygen levels and pulse rate)
As these devices as well as other metrics illustrate, physical health stands to benefit greatly from the internet of things, and “wearable” tech is the up and coming product category ready for growth.
The Future Is Biometrics, and Apple Knows It
Back in May at the All Things Digital 11 conference, Tim Cook commented on the current state of innovation in wearable tech in response to questions from Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher related to Nike’s FuelBand biometric fitness bracelets and Google Glass:
Walt: Are wearables part of the post-PC era that goes beyond fitness bracelets?
Tim: Yes, I think so. I wear a FuelBand…Nike did a great job. It’s integrated well with iOS. There are lots of wearables, but of the ones doing more than one thing, I haven’t seen anything great out there. Nothing that will convince a kid that’s never worn glasses or a band to wear one. Or I haven’t seen it…so lots of things to solve here. The area is ripe for exploration, and it’s ripe for us to get excited about. Lots of companies will be in this space.
Kara: So…glasses, clothing. Where are you interested?
Tim: I’m interested in a great product. I wear glasses because I have to. People generally want glasses to reflect their fashion, style, etc. So this is difficult from a mainstream point of view. I think the wrist is natural. I think there are other things in this space that could be interesting. Sensors are exploding. It will become clearer over time.
In these responses, Tim Cook has 1) acknowledged that, of the current offerings in multifunction wearable tech, there is no single product that really functions well and 2) that Apple sees incredible value in mastering the integration of sensors (read “biometric sensors”) in order to create new product categories. In other words, Tim Cook has effectively confirmed that the wearable tech environment is just right for Apple to begin the process of building its version of wearables based on biometric sensors. And like music players and phones before it, Apple will reinvent the watch and create a new product category. But this is not exactly breaking news; many news reports and industry analysts have stated that the question of whether or not Apple will introduce a wearable device…is not if but when…and that seems to be looking more like sometime in 2014. When one considers the recent hires by Apple, the evidence that a wearable iOS-synced device is being developed in Cupertino becomes impossible to ignore. Make no mistake: the iWatch is coming, and it will monitor so much more than time. It will change the way we monitor ourselves.
Proof in the Patents & Clues in the Code
Back in February of this year, Apple was granted the continuation of a patent from the US Patent Office that develops a related patent issued in 2009. Specifically, this new patent
…relates to sensing systems monitoring applications in sports, shipping, training, medicine, fitness, wellness and industrial production. The invention specifically relates to sensing and reporting events associated with movement, environmental factors such as temperature, health functions, fitness effects, and changing conditions.
These new sensors, the patent claims, are designed to “quantify human movement” and goes on to describe two primary types of sensors to accomplish this goal; Movement Monitor Devices (MMD) and Event Monitor Devices (EMD). The first of these monitors (MMD), are described as being located on an”…adhesive strip similar to a bandage and include a processor, a detector, communications port, and battery”. They will be able to measure the movement of physical objects which has formerly been very difficult to measure while in motion. These “metrics” will include “…airtime, speed, power, impact, drop distance, jarring and spin”. The other type of monitor (EMD) will measure “…temperature, humidity, chemicals, heart rate, pulse, pressure, stress, weight, environmental factors and hazardous conditions”. Working in tandem, these monitors will even be able to detect when a desired threshold has been passed, such as exceeding a certain amount of G-force during an impact. Examples in the patent include tracking a parcel in route to measuring the impact of a karate kick. More pertinent to the point of this article, these movement monitors can even detect when a hospital patient is walking safely or has fallen or whether or not an infant is breathing normally or when abnormal heartbeats occur. Both types of monitors include a real-time clock so that the time of certain events and measurements can be logged for future analysis. Also in February, Apple was granted another patent; this one dealing with the physical design of a device worn on the wrist. If this particular patent comes to fruition, Apple’s version of wearable tech could be
…a wearable video device arranged to be worn by an end-user, comprising: a flexible substrate having a flat state and a curled state; a flexible display disposed upon a first surface of the flexible substrate, wherein in the curled state the flexible substrate conforms to an appendage of the end-user…
and something that looks very similar to the above image supplied in the patent application. According to the patent, the device would be powered via ambient light in combination with kinetic energy and wrap around a user’s wrist like a slap bracelet. When these two patents are considered together, it becomes clear what Apple may have in mind for an “iWatch” (the moniker has already been trademarked in many countries): a flexible device which can (at least) display video output based on sensors that can quantify certain elements of human movement. A recent rendering of what the iWatch may look like from RepairLabs is based on the description in the patents discussed above. However, there are more recent clues as to Apple’s biometric focus. In addition to the above patents, the iOS 7 Beta SDK includes a framework called “BiometricUIKit”. This is good evidence that Apple will include biometrics on the soon-to-be-released iPhone 5S, and it is further confirmation that Cupertino plans to integrate such sensors into its mobile software. The iWatch and Health Care
The implications of Apple’s version of wearable tech for health care should be fairly obvious. A wearable smart “watch” from Apple could tell users so much more than just the time. I believe that this aspect will be part of the advertising campaign for it (“iWatch: it’s time to know more than just the time”). Some possible uses are laid out in the initial patent mentioned above dealing with health care, but some additional speculation can show just how effective an iWatch could be in the case of patient care in a hospital and at home:
Imagine a patient who has been admitted to a hospital because of chest pains. As part of her initial processing, she is fitted with an iWatch. Now, along with other patients, nurses can monitor her pulse rate, temperature, even blood oxygen levels and receive alerts when these measurements cross a pre-determined threshold via an iPad. When she is rested enough to walk, her iWatch can monitor the number of steps and calories burned. Of course these indicators can be measured remotely from a nurse’s station today via traditional equipment, but task-specific apps would be more cost effective and able to do the same job more efficiently. For example, Forbes magazine reports the Return-On-Investment of an iPad alone to be 9 days, and a recent study by the American Medical Association discovered that 78% of 115 internal medicine residents who use an iPad worked more efficiently, enabling them to save about an hour of work each day. Our patient’s iWatch used in conjunction with an iPad would both further increase this efficiency and decrease the costs involved. When our patient is discharged, her iWatch can continue to send those metrics to her doctor, who can monitor them remotely. If those numbers vary too much, the doctor can receive an automatic update alerting him to call her and check on her health. Perhaps he recommends getting back to her regular exercise routine. Her iWatch can wake her up in the morning (with a description of her sleep patterns) in time for her morning workout. She can track her exercise results (target heart rate, calories burned, running/walking distance, body temperature) with the data synced to an app on her iPhone. If she choses to share it, her health insurance company can also use the data from that app to know how often she exercises (imagine programs similar to the “Snapshot” offering by Progressive, wherein user data is collated for discounts from auto insurance premiums) and offer her incentives for a regular workout routine. If, during her exercise routine, there is a life-threatening complication, the local EMS can be alerted immediately. After her workout, our user can keep track of her caloric burn and intake by logging the food she easts for dinner, and that information can also be sent to her doctor or nutritionist to help build a big-picture profile of her health from month to month. These uses would, in turn, drive health care costs down dramatically by putting the focus on prevention rather than treatment.
This is just one scenario. The iWatch will be used by millions to monitor their day-to-day health and improve their lives in countless other ways. Areas like sports medicine and athletic training will benefit as well. I really don’t think many people realize just how much of a game-changer this will be. The iWatch will not just make measuring your heart rate easier; it will change the way society thinks about health and wellness, much like the way the previous Apple devices have changed the way we think about technology and its role in our lives. Health will be more of a priority in iOS users’ minds. People will be more mindful of things they may not have pondered much before; how many calories they’ve burned, their resting heart rate and amount of exercise. The integration of biometric data into the iOS ecosystem will do wonders for health care, both in and out of hospitals. Like the Macintosh, iPod, and iPhone, it will be a watershed moment in the history of technology because it will be the first successful integration of technology and the human body in one device. The current skepticism expressed by some industry pundits over Apple’s seeming inability to innovate will vanish the moment it is unveiled. Apple’s mission is to build products that enrich people’s lives; the iWatch will go a long way to make those lives healthier.