CES 2020: A Breakthrough Year for Digital Health Wearables
Judging by the number of digital health wearables at CES this year, the industry expects all of us to flaunt at least one of them. Increasingly the question is becoming which, not whether. While social media companies compete for your attention, wearable vendors are competing for space on your wrist (or now, in your ear or on your finger). So far, there is no “One Ring (or watch or earbud) To Rule Them All.” The dozens of innovative products divide up based on what consumers want most out of their wearable devices. We’ve picked through the hundreds (yes, hundreds) on display at CES this year to give you our thoughts on some of the most unique and interesting.
Withings ScanWatch One-Ups Competition With Apnea Detection
One of the most advanced health wearables introduced at CES this year is the ScanWatch from established firm Withings. While not the first watch to incorporate an ECG and AFib detection capability, it adds both a VO2 Max feature and an ability to detect sleep apnea (based on the concentration of oxygen in your blood while you are sleeping). For the most part, getting VO2 Max requires specialized devices, and sleep apnea detection often requires a medical-grade test procedure (although forehead-mounted Beddr provides a similar capability). If Withings can get the ScanWatch finished and approved by regulators in time for its planned launch in Q2, it may be the first 24/7 wearable to offer this combination of features.
The price is right, too, with the watch priced at $249 for the 38mm size, and $299 for the 42mm size. Like other Withings wearables, the medical and fitness tracking technology is built around an analog watch design, so it isn’t a direct competitor to the typical smartwatch with a fully digital design and library of applications. But hewing to a more traditional approach gives the ScanWatch an estimated 30 days of battery life, far surpassing that of all-digital smartwatches and most trackers.
IEVA Time-C: Pioneering Environmental Health Wearable Becomes a Watch
French startup IEVA made some waves with its innovative Twin-C ($149 and up) wearable featuring an impressive array of environmental sensors. Now it is building on that with the Time-C smartwatch ($490 and up) that combines a full-on fitness and health tracker with the environmental sensors.
IEVA comes from a very different place than most wearable vendors. Their founders have been providing custom skin treatments based on environmental exposure for years. Their focus is on helping customers measure their environment (including noise, UV light, and pollution), estimate its effect on them, and actively take steps to improve things. In addition to the features you’d expect from a premium-priced fitness tracker like heart rate monitoring and exercise detection, the Time-C monitors ambient noise, temperature, solar radiation, and humidity, along with CO2 and VOCs levels through its sensors.
The Time-C also pulls pollution and environmental data from online sources. All of this data helps IEVA provide the wearer with personalized data about their health and the health of their environment — along with suggestions on ways to improve both. IEVA also has an element of citizen science about it. The founders are hoping that the data collected (and voluntarily shared) from their users about their surrounding environments will be helpful to scientists working to model the global climate.
Huami Amazfit: New Zenbuds Sleep-specialized Ear Buds
Chinese wearable giant Huami (around a hundred million devices sold) is mostly known through other names because it makes wearables like the Mi bands. However, it also has its own and growing brand called Amazfit. At CES this week, the company launched an array of new value-priced devices, including a $140 outdoor watch, the T-Rex. As far as digital health, though, the most interesting new products were the two models of earbuds announced (but not quite available yet).
The first, Powerbuds ($99.99 available in February), is designed to be a fashion-forward alternative to traditional earbuds, with the addition of heart rate monitoring — so that you can do fitness tracking without another wearable. For personal safety, the Powerbuds feature an ambient pass-through mode, along with all the other goodies we’ve come to expect from earbuds. The other new earbuds, Zenbuds (available later this year), are super-light (< 2 grams), feature a 12-hour battery, and are designed specifically created to improve the quality of your sleep. They offer sound blocking and soothing sound generation, while also monitoring your sleeping habits. Because they are in-ear, they can track your sleeping position in addition to heart rate and estimated sleep stages, so they potentially offer some new and interesting data for analysis.
Firstbeat: The Tech Behind the Devices
As you might expect given the dozens of companies now producing wearables related to digital health data and analysis, they don’t all do their own science. Many of them rely on Firstbeat for their underlying algorithms. That includes GPS-enabled sports watches, smartwatches, and cycling computers from industry giants Garmin, Huawei, Suunto, and Huami. Recently, they’ve added Xiaomi and Mio to their list of customers. The Firstbeat platform has support for the usual sensors, but also includes more sophisticated options like VO2max calculation, and can incorporate heat, humidity, and altitude in its analytics.
Firstbeat is also pushing into the sleep analysis field, using Heart Rate Variability as a primary determinant of sleep stages. For the curious, they’ve done an excellent job of explaining the technique in an online whitepaper. One of the biggest takeaways for me is that even human sleep experts only have about 80 percent agreement on which state sleep a person is in, even given the best data. So it makes sense that experiments like the one I did last year that involve using several different devices at the same time can yield dramatically different statistics.
Binah.ai: Forget a Wearable, Just Use a Camera
Medical researchers have known for a while how to estimate some vital signs using just a video of a person’s face. Binah.ai is making that a reality in the form of a smartphone app that can use the phone’s camera to record video (or even record a TV screen) and generate vital signs from it. The company says the app can measure not just heart rate and respiration (which has been done by quite a few research teams), but also heart rate variability (HRV), blood oxygen saturation, and mental stress. They also claim they will be able to measure blood pressure soon. The best part of getting a demo was the annotated video of Zuckerberg testifying before Congress, complete with his vital signs as the hearing went along. I’m planning to snag the app when it becomes available in March and leave it running aimed at my TV while I watch the news.