The competition is on to make wearable tech worthwhile, from smart compression socks to brainy bras.
Any tech-savvy active (or wannabe active) person knows it’s not enough to keep track of personal best 5K times or max bench press weights. Wearable tech also needs to record daily steps walked, resting heart rate and other metrics that quantify fitness gains.
Today, 16 percent of American adults own a wearable fitness tracker. Sales of these devices are on the rise — the first quarter of 2016 saw a 40 percent increase in sales over 2015. Fitness junkies, it seems, crave insights, motivation and praise, and companies are eager to oblige.
“The biggest innovations in the space right now are around miniaturization, energy efficiency and design,” said Matthew Diamond, MD, PhD, chair of the Consumer Electronics Association’s Health and Fitness Technology committee and medical director at technology incubator Misfit, Inc.
“It’s about incorporating technology into the clothing, watches, jewelry and other accessories we already love wearing, so the technology can be used effortlessly and for long periods of time.”
While it’s clear fitness fanatics are eager to use technology to track their progress, it’ll be interesting to see what new wearables have endurance in the marketplace.
- Thinking Cap?
A potential solution for runners or cyclists who want to shed the chest strap and keep their wrists unencumbered, the SmartCap from Spree Wearables ($200) measures heart rate and body temperature via a sensor-filled pod that’s held against the forehead in the cap’s brow. It also tracks GPS location during runs and bike rides.
The manufacturers claim it’s the “only” fitness tracking product that measures body temperature and incorporates it into the workouts — which may be for good reason. According to research, the only truly accurate way to measure body temperature, and the standard of the National Athletic Trainers’ Association, is via the rectum.
- Brainy Bra
OMSignal, a leading developer of smart clothing, generated buzz at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show when it announced a smart sports bra ($149) to complement its fitness shirt designed for men. Sensors measure heart rate and breathing rate, and multi-dimensional accelerometers track step count and movement intensity.
The centrally located sensors have the potential to improve heart-rate readings, especially during a workout, and reduce over-counting of steps common to wrist-based monitors. Logistically, however, there are some issues.
Namely, in order to get a daily step count, the bra — with its accompanying “smart box” snapped to the band — needs to be worn all day, every day. This could be problematic for women who already struggle to find comfortable sports bras – but the premise is promising.
Chromat, another company working on smart clothing, recently revealed its Aero Sports Bra at the New York Fashion Week in 2015. This sports attire, however, uses an Intel Curie module, perspiration sensors and shape memory alloy module to keep the wearer from overheating once she starts to sweat.
“One day, it will not be called ‘smart clothing’ anymore but just ‘clothing’,” said Chelsea Bush, spokesperson for the marketing department at OMSignal.
- Waistline Wisdom
At CES 2016, Samsung exhibited a Creative Lab Project called WELT (a portmanteau of “wellness belt”). This casual-looking leather belt with a number of sensors in the buckle measures waist size and how the tension on the belt changes throughout the day — ostensibly an indication of overeating — as well as steps walked and how long the wearer sits still.
A study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information found that trackers worn at the hip and waist generally are more accurate at counting steps than ones worn on the wrist, but some wearers might not welcome the reminder that they overindulged at lunch.
- Smarty Pants
While fitness tech manufacturers are looking at lower-body biometrics, many of these products skew more heavily toward the pro athlete than the weekend warrior.
Athos’ shorts and capris ($348 with the core tracker attachment) measure heart rate and incorporate electromyography sensors that determine muscle activation. The idea is to gauge both effort and muscle imbalance from right to left during any activity. It also claims to track tiredness.
“Fatigue is not necessarily the result of measuring one sensor but combining the data from multiple sensors like heart rate, muscle activity, and EEG [electroencephalogram],” said Aditya Kaul, research director for Tractica, a market research firm that closely follows the industry. “But the real innovation comes in the algorithms that can tell whether a professional athlete is ready to play a game the next day, and in what state his or her body is to perform to the maximum level.”
- Coaching Capris
Lumo Bodytech focuses on the runner, promising targeted advice based on the data collected from the many sensors built into its shorts and capris ($200 each) and delivered via a smartphone app.
Using a nine-axis movement sensor, an accelerometer and a gyroscope, the Lumo bottoms track cadence (number of steps per minute), pelvic positioning and movement patterns, as well as the bounciness of steps, loss of speed upon foot strike (called “braking”), ground contact time and length of each stride – all of which contribute to running efficiency.
- Comprehensive Compression
Also for runners, the calf compression sleeve from BSX Insight ($300) measures muscle oxygen concentration via infrared LED lights through the skin. It provides data on lactic acid threshold (a.k.a. anaerobic threshold, or AT) — normally determined via a blood test or in a lab setting — to help runners optimize targeted training zones.
- Souped-Up Socks
If pants being running coach doesn’t sound out-there enough, how about from a $200 pair of socks? The ones from Sensoria, when outfitted with a data-collecting anklet and linked to a smartphone, capture the wearer’s running stats via textile sensors and conductive fibers woven into the fabric.
The socks capture data about how the foot strikes the ground, the cadence of footfalls and the running pace, with the app providing feedback when any stat falls out of the range preset by the user. Wearers can even compare how different pairs of shoes affect the stats.
Since the advent of the minimalist shoe movement, much ado has been made about runners’ foot strike, and more specifically, how landing heel first is “bad” or unnatural, because human feet are better able to dissipate force from the mid or forefoot. These socks and the accompanying app play into that notion, which running and anatomy experts aren’t totally sold on.
As Jay Dicharry, a physical therapist and the author of Anatomy for Runners: Unlocking Your Athletic Potential for Health, Speed, and Injury Prevention told Competitor.com, runners who force themselves to land on their forefoot only reap the benefits if they’re not overstriding in order to make it happen. Since the socks can’t measure stride, they aren’t likely to benefit most runners.
Still, as fitness trackers and smartwatches become more affordable and move beyond a mere trend for early adapters, it’s likely smart clothing and non-wrist wearables will follow the same trajectory. It could be only a matter of time before smart caps and sensor-sewn shorts are the new normal.