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How Accurate Are Wearables?

Monday, April 11th, 2016 by | Filed Under: Android, iOS, Smartphones
 
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One of the more fascinating new technological trends happening right now is the rise of wearable devices. An outgrowth of smartphones and other wireless gadgets, as well as a possible precursor to the Internet of Things, wearables have shown tremendous potential. Consumers have bought into the idea of wearable health devices in particular, with gadgets like Jawbone, Fitbit, Apple Watch, and others tracking health information while being worn. When dealing with health matters, people want to ensure the data is accurate, but that might be an area where wearables are struggling. If you have bought, or are thinking of buying, a wearable device, you may want to know if the information being conveyed to you is correct. According to recent studies, accuracy appears to be a problem, one that future wearables will need to address.

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The most recent scientific study to look at wearable data accuracy comes from a paper by Tokyo’s National Institute of Health and Nutrition, published by JAMA Internal Medicine. This study specifically looked at how accurately wearable devices measured the amount of calories burned during the day. What researchers found was a significant discrepancy between what the devices reported and what the actual number of burned calories was. On average, the margin of error was around 200 calories — not something that can just be dismissed.

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This study doesn’t even serve as the first wakeup call for better wearable device accuracy. Another study, this one done in the U.S., found inaccuracies as well. The study from the Department of Kinesiology at Iowa State University looked at similar health measurements over different types of exercises. Error rates varied depending on the device, but even the most accurate had error rates of just over 15 percent and nearly 17 percent. The least accurate wearable had an error rate of more than 30 percent. In a world where big data solutions rule the day and information is king, such large error rates can paint a very different picture from reality.

From these studies it becomes clear that the chances of your wearables being completely accurate is slim to none. While that’s the obvious conclusion, it should be noted that most wearable fitness devices don’t bill themselves as infallible medical gadgets. If anything, their goal is to give a general view as to how many calories you’re burning or what your heart rate is. Substituting a mainstream wearable fitness device for an FDA-approved medical instrument should not be the aim. The problem then arises when consumers end up doing so, an action that is highly inadvisable.

Even if wearable devices aren’t intended to replace more sophisticated medical equipment, accuracy is still something that wearable manufacturers need to shoot for. After all, nobody wants to treat medical information with skepticism. Consumers want to use wearable fitness devices to help them improve their own health and reach their own goals. Wearable manufacturers likewise should be looking to increase consumer trust with an accurate product, one that people can rely on to understand where they can work for improvement. In this sense, many wearable makers are striving to get accuracy into the “good enough” range, but that is proving to be a challenge.

One of the biggest obstacles for having accurate wearables is the need to make them for mass market appeal. That means creating a device that can comfortable fit the wrist and many different types of people. As wearables evolve and can be worn on other parts of the body, this problem may be alleviated, but the fact remains that not every device can be custom fit. Creating a durable wearable is another challenge, especially since many people wear them during physically active activities. Different body types can also affect wearable accuracy. All these factors must be taken into consideration and will have an impact on how accurate a wearable device turns out to be.

With advancing technology in big data, flash storage array, cloud computing and more, it’s clear that wearables represent the future. Though accuracy remains an issue, better technology will likely be developed that will help make wearables more precise. In the meantime, you should probably treat your wearable as a device that gives you a general idea of what you’re doing and not the hard truth.

~ Rick Delgado

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3 Responses to “How Accurate Are Wearables?”

  1. Michael detrick says:

    I have a fit it flex it is very accurate

  2. Deborah Lorenz says:

    I have a Fitbit Charge. It has been accurate enough for me to lose and keep off 35 pounds. Way better than I expected,

  3. Carolyn J says:

    I have been wearing a Fitbit since they first came on the market and have changed models/devices as they have improved. I do trust their accuracy for steps and figure that if they aren’t accurate, hopefully it is at least consistent.
    The ‘stairs’ feature is woefully inadequate. I know how many times I have gone up stairs during a day and my fitbit is never accurate but I live with that.
    I do not wear my Fitbit for recording sleep. Am still not convinced how safe wearing something electronic, connecting with Bluetooth all day long, is safe for our bodies and so give my body a break overnight.
    I use mine as motivation for getting my steps in and don’t expect too much from my device other than wanting to know if I worked hard enough during any kind of fitness activity and my total steps at the end of the day.

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