Smartwatches: we’re not there yet

Even with the latest generation of smartwatches, we’re only scratching the surface of what they should be

After a bunch of research, I recently picked up the 4th generation Apple Watch. I ended up with Apple’s version of a smartwatch after having tried Samsung Gear (love the bezel navigation, but the choice of apps is too limited), and looking a host of both smartwatches and hybrids.

All of the reviews I read all concluded the same thing: unless you’re anti-Apple, the Watch is the best, most advanced smartwatch on the market today. With things like fall prediction, advanced fitness tracking, and ECG, the Watch has more features, especially in the health department, than ever before.

But after a few weeks of wear, I’ve concluded that we’re still very much in an infant state of smartwatches. Yes, the new Watch has a few features that point towards what a smartwatch should be, but all in all: we’re not there yet.

Smartwatches, for me at least, are less about notifications (which I find fall somewhere on a scale going from mildly practical to highly annoying) and more about data. And when it comes to data, there are three levels of sophistication:

  1. Collection. This is the simplest one, and the one where it all has to start. Before we can do anything with data, we need data. So we start by putting sensors on things, or capturing data generated by behavior. We don’t really do much with it, but we start capturing it.
  2. Display. This is the second step, and the first that involves a user. Here, we show the user what data we’ve collected, in formats that can range from raw data to detailed visualizations. This allows us to see what is going on. But any interpretation or action is still on us, the users.
  3. Action. This is where it gets interesting. Here, we use algorithms to help the user understand the meaning of the data collected, and makes recommendations for actions based on the data (or even takes action on its own).

Smartwatches, by and large, are only on level 2. They gather and display the data, but I lack an additional layer that helps me understand my data and make decisions based on it. Generally, the only behavior adaptions my Watch has suggested for me is when it suggest I do a “quick 57-minute walk to close out your movement ring”. At 11 pm. Oh, Watch, how little you know me.

When I do any kind of workout with it, it tells me afterwards how much my heart rate dropped after 1 and 2 minutes. That’s well and good, and I do know that measuring how quickly your heart rate normalizes after exercise is a good indicator of overall heart health. But what’s good? A 20 point drop in a minute? 40? 60? I don’t know, and the Watch doesn’t tell me. Same thing with my VO2 max, I get a number, but not whether that number is good or bad. And nothing on how to improve it. I haven’t tested the ECG (it isn’t available in my country yet), but I suspect it will do the same; give me a seemingly arbitrary number with no indication of meaning or action.

Actually, my Garmin sports watch does a better job of giving me information and action points. After a run, I’m not just given a VO2 max number, but also told if that number is good or bad related to my age. And it tells me how long I should recover before my next run. And provided I do more than two runs every seven days, it can tell me if my training is productive (defining productive as increase in fitness relative to workout amount). My guess is these two bits of info, how often to train to ensure complete recovery and knowing whether what you’re doing works, is the primary reason many people seek out personal trainers.

The Garmin isn’t perfect, by no means. Yes, it tells me if my training is productive or not, but I’d love it if it gave me actual suggestions for how improve my training, based on my goals.

Don’t get me wrong, I like my Apple Watch, and I enjoy having a smartwatch that can work equally well at the office and on a run. But there’s still very much an unfulfilled potential. We’re just not there yet.

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