The Future of Smart Health

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If you follow my column here at Techland, you will know that I write quite a bit about smart devices. The road map of the technology industry is one where very powerful semiconductors and sensors are being embedded into many everyday objects. The number of smart devices consumers have in their lives today is minuscule compared with the number of smart devices we will have in the future.

An industry I have been thinking about relative to smart devices is health and wellness. Recently my father underwent an emergency triple bypass, and since then I have been exploring ways that technology can help us take better care of ourselves.

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Many products and applications exist today that can help us take steps toward healthier living. From my own research on the subject of health, I have found that more often than not, the difference between a person on a healthy path and an unhealthy path is education. Hopefully, technology and smart devices will not only help the healthy stay that way but also educate others about how to live a healthier life.

Tracking Our Every Move

A particular product that has piqued my interest is the Nike+ FuelBand. There are a great many wearable activity-tracking devices, but the FuelBand is more general in its application. It is simply an activity monitor. Other products can actually track heart rate and allow for much more specific data tracking, whereas the FuelBand focuses on steps and calories. What’s interesting to me about the FuelBand over other, more specific wearable sensors is that it calculates Fuel Points. You can set goals and treat it as a sort of game.

My wife and I both have Nike+ FuelBands, and we often compete to see who can acquire the most Fuel Points in a day. This type of gamification of health is one of the ways that body sensors can give us insight into our own activity and the activity of others, making it fun in the process.

There’s Still a Long Way to Go

There are a few things about the FuelBand that make it more appeasing to the mass market, but there’s also still a long way to go. For example, it can only approximate how many calories I burn based on my activity. Where the FuelBand falls short is that it seems to treat a run and a walk the same when they are not. To be more accurate, there would need to be another sensor that monitors my heart rate — something that’s available on other Nike+ products and other competing sports sensors. As sensor technology gets better, this kind of thing can become more available to the mainstream without the need for specialized products. With advances in nanotechnology, such sensors can even become embedded into the clothing we wear.

The other advance I would love to see is the pairing of these wearable sensors and activity monitors with the food I eat throughout the day. There is an interesting app out for Apple devices called Meal Snap, which lets you take a picture of your food and then approximates how many calories you’re about to eat. Pairing this sort of app with an actual activity monitor would allow us to be more precise about how many calories we consumed throughout the day vs. how many we burned. This would take us one step closer to making better choices with food and knowing whether we are calorie-neutral, -positive or -negative for the day. For those wanting to lose weight, for example, this kind of data would be invaluable.

Being Accountable to a Community

Where the future of smart health really gets interesting is when the data that is gathered from our eating habits and exercise can be shared with a community. In the case of my father, as he not only rehabilitates but also works toward a healthier lifestyle, I would value seeing his progress both in terms of exercise and food so that I could stay involved in the process.

The same is true for our doctors. With the help of such sensors, in the future they could monitor patient activity from afar by getting notifications. They could then offer tips and suggestions to keep their patients on the right track.

Social media can play a role as well. If a person wants to lose weight and uses one of these products that tracks food, exercise and other habits, they can use a community like Facebook or Twitter to support them and hold them accountable. This would hopefully help people stay disciplined in the process as others support them by participating in helping them reach their goals. Fitbit products have certain social features already, for instance.

Ultimately we still have a long way to go as sensor technology and other smart devices get more powerful and more available to the mainstream. But I’m optimistic that we’re headed in the right direction. These examples, along with many others, convince me that there are many years of innovation still ahead for the health-and-wellness industry.

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Bajarin is a principal at Creative Strategies Inc., a technology-industry-analysis and market-intelligence firm in Silicon Valley. He contributes to the “Big Picture” opinion column that appears every Monday on Techland.