Before Reed Ferber helped create an entire university program to study wearable technology and biometric data, his journey to understanding the power of wearables began while working at the Running Injury Clinic in 2008.
Ferber, a professor at the University of Calgary’s faculty of kinesiology, was working with a casual runner and asked her what her distance goals were for the day. “She said, ‘Well, I wasn’t going to go for a run today. I left my Nike chip at home,’ " explaining that she was competing in a running challenge with friends.
The course of Ferber’s research would change after being shown the empty chip insert lodged in the sole of her runners. “Right there – it just clicked that her behaviour was changing because of this technology,” Ferber says. “And as a health researcher, I’m trying to change people’s behaviour.”
Since then, Ferber helped create We-TRAC, a University of Calgary program that uses data from volunteers’ wearable tech for research on everything from sleep to exercise.
In recent years, the sophistication, specificity and types of wearable technology and smart watches have branched out. Apple, Samsung, Xiaomi and Huawei remain the dominant brands in wearable tech, accounting for around 30 per cent, 10 per cent, 9 per cent and 7 per cent of the market share, respectively, according to a 2022 IDC report. But there are many competing companies selling technology with specialized features and measurements.
Garmin, for example, offers smartwatches from $99 to over $2,000, from basic activity trackers to watches for golfers that map out courses and individual shots, waterproof watches for swimmers, and watches that display aviation information for pilots. Other wearables, like the WHOOP wristband, can use blood oxygen levels, heart rate and heart rate variability to track sleep, physical activity and recovery.
The Oura Ring can monitor sleep, potential stress, exercise, and was found to detect signals of COVID-19 in a study with the University of California, San Francisco. “The Oura Ring is not a medical device and is not intended to diagnose medical conditions. However, it provides a holistic picture of a person’s health,” an Oura spokesperson says, explaining that it can help users “spot meaningful changes in their metrics, like an elevated heart rate or temperature, that can be shared with medical providers to help diagnose and/or treat health conditions.”
Michael Snyder, professor and chair of Stanford University’s department of genetics, was able to notice early symptoms of Lyme disease in 2015 while participating in a study that had him attached to eight biosensors. When he saw that his blood oxygen was abnormally low and his heartbeat was elevated after a stint in rural Massachusetts, Snyder promptly got treated for the disease. Later tests would show that he did, in fact, have Lyme disease, and it prompted him to look further into the uses of wearable tech.
When the pandemic hit, Snyder and his group from wearable tech data. Using smartwatch data from 5,300 volunteers with various brands, they found 31 people with Fitbits who had recorded when their symptoms presented and when they were diagnosed. “It worked 80 per cent of the time, with 26 of 31 cases [detecting signs of COVID-19] in a median of four days prior to symptom onset,” he says.
While excited by the initial results, Snyder says any widespread use of such an app would require further testing and regulatory approvals. “It is a research study – we’re not FDA approved,” he says. But Snyder is a firm believer in the technology’s potential. “This is it. This is the future.”
While Ferber acknowledges that the sensors, software and apps have improved, he cautions that some wearable tech companies have not adequately validated their products, if at all. “I’m not going to name names, but there’s a lot of products out there – especially if you see a new one on the shelf or it pops up in your Instagram feed – chances are it has not been validated, and they’re simply looking to make money.”
He suggests prospective buyers check to see if the company has partnered with a university, and if the research has been peer reviewed.
The future includes wearable tech into clothing, says Simon Fraser University professor Max Donelan. “The idea would be to integrate it directly into what you wear, like your shoes, or your helmet,” says Donelan, who co-directs SFU’s WearTech Labs, “but eventually, people imagine it being woven directly into clothing.”
Reed says this kind of technology already exists, as companies like WHOOP have begun to roll out sensor-enhanced technical clothing. “We’re going to buy our wearable tech from Walmart, TJ Maxx – just an average clothing store pretty soon. It’s not going to have to be a $700 watch.”