What Happened to the Wellness Wearables Boom?
It was not that long ago that wellness wearables were a hot topic of conversation. In 2013, the release of the Samsung Gear- popularizing the idea of a smartwatch-as well as the Pebble and a new line of Fitbit devices were released.
Then at the end of that year, Forbes magazine declared 2014 to be "the year of the wearable," and they were not far off the mark. Wearables in 2014 saw the announcement of the Apple Watch and the public release of Google Glass.
But by January of 2015, Google had announced they would no longer produce the Google Glass prototype, and by July, sales figures for the Apple Watch were below expectations. The year was capped with rumors that Jawbone may abandon the wellness wearables market entirely after laying off 15 percent of their staff and closing their New York offices. What happened to the wearable industry?
"A lot of the time, the problem with wearables is price point and audience understanding," said Chuck Frizelle, former Senior Director of Corporate Wellness for Jawbone and current President and Co- Founder of Coros Wearables Inc.
A few years ago, you could walk down the wearables aisle at your local BestBuy and see a lot of brands. Today, however, you will see the big names like Fitbit, Apple, and Samsung.
"Fitbit is a great brand, it is an experience," said Frizelle. "They really benefited from the networking effect; advertising the product through word of mouth and showing it off to your friends. The other guys, like Misfit, haven't executed well on that front. There are great benefits to wellness wearables, but the trick is finding what the needs are."
Data is a Benefit and a Curse
Since their inception, wearable technology has come a long way. What started as devices that counted steps now measure steps, speed, location, heart rate, calories burned and can even remind you to get up and move when you have been stationary too long. But this excess of features may be doing more harm than good.
"An opportunity for wearables is more information about where user's data is going," said Frizelle. "Ultimately, it is the user's data. It is important that users own their data, as they do their health outcomes. People need to know how their data be used in the future.
In a few years, these devices will be able to capture biometric data that can only be captured by a physician today. If an employer were to learn through this device that an employee has high blood pressure or diabetes, how will they use it? Will it affect hiring or firing decisions?"
This brings up a problem wellness wearables are facing in the corporate wellness market, lack of employer understanding. The EHBC's recent survey, The State of Wearables in the Workplace, found that employers are largely still in the dark about how to utilize wellness wearables.
Frizelle provided an interesting anecdote on the topic. "One company we worked with wanted a device that measured heart rate. They wanted to have a heart rate competition, as in the winner was the person who reached the highest heart rate.
There is no 'competitive heart rate', heart rate is different for each person. When forcing people out of their normal range like this, a physician should be involved or they are open to liability."
He recommends that wearable programs like this should instead focus more on measuring total active time and not steps, overall sleep quality or food journaling. It is through simple and easy programs that make it easy for employees to participate in, that wellness wearables thrive in a corporate environment.
Time will Tell
Another problem plaguing wellness wearables, especially in the employer and corporate wellness markets, is a lack of concrete data about their long-term efficacy and ROI. Before a company spends hundreds of thousands, or even millions of dollars rolling out wearable devices to their employees, they need to be certain that their money is not being wasted. An individual can look at their data and understand what it means quickly, but an employer looking at aggregate data will have a harder time coming to a conclusion.
"In time, case studies will be able to track results, but will take a few years of data collected to make an informed decision," said Frizelle. "This is time employers don't have. They need to make a decision today. Many cutting-edge companies were early adopters, but many companies are holding out to see what the real value of a $1 million investment is.
There are also other questions that need answers. Is it sustainable? Will these devices make lasting behavior change? Ultimately there is a benefit, but we need empirical data to prove it."
Wellness Wearables Moving Forward
As a maturing industry, wearables are still in the process of figuring out their niche. Manufacturers like Fitbit do well selling their devices and software to employers, but these employers still have many questions, and it is too soon for answers. Because of this, the next stage of wearables will be consumer driven.
Frizelle's new company, Coros Wearables Inc, whose first device -- The LINX Smart Cycling Helmet - allows users a to bike, listen to music or hold a phone call all without blocking their ears, is looking entirely at the consumer.
As devices get smaller and move away from the wrist or waistband and into clothing or even implanted into the skin, they will become more specialized and individualized. While the sedentary person in the office might need a device to monitor their blood sugar levels and encourage them to move more, the marathon runner in the cubicle next door will not. Like wellness programs themselves, one size does not fit all.
"I know corporate wellness works, but to thrive with wearables we need enhanced functionality so we can all benefit," said Frizelle. "Device manufacturers have an opportunity to work with employers to provide discounts and help make their devices better."