I was always of the opinion that the health trackers on the market were little more than gimmicks. Most of them were glorified pedometers worn by people who wanted to look like they were fitness conscious people rather than actually using them to stay fit. The introduction of heart rate tracking however presented functionality that wasn’t available before and piqued my interest. However the lack of continuous passive heart rate monitoring meant that they weren’t particularly useful in that regard so I held off until that was available. The Jawbone Up3 was the first to offer that functionality and, whilst it’s still limited to non-active periods, was enough for me to purchase my first fitness tracker. After using it for a month or so I thought I’d report my findings on it as most of the reviews out there focus on it at launch, rather than how it is now.
The device itself is small, lightweight and relatively easy to forget that it’s strapped to your wrist once you get it on. The band adjustment system is a little awkward, requiring you to take it off to adjust it and then put it back on, but once you get it to the right size it’s not much of an issue. The charging mechanism could be done better as it requires you to line up all the contacts perfectly or the band will simply not charge. It’d be far better to have an inductive charging system for it however given the device’s size and weight I’d hazard a guess that that was likely not an option. For the fashion conscious the Up3 seems to go unnoticed by most with only a few people I knew noticing it over the time I’ve had it. Overall as a piece of tech I like it however looks aren’t everything when it comes to fitness trackers.
The spec sheet for the Up3 has a laundry list of sensors in it however you really only get to see the data collected from two of them: the pedometer and the heart rate monitor. Whilst I understand that having all that data would be confusing for most users for someone like me it’d definitely be of interest. This means that, whilst the Up3 might be the most feature packed fitness tracker out there, in terms of actual, usable functionality it’s quite similar to a lot of bands already out there. For many that will make the rather high asking price a hard pill to swallow. There’s been promises of access to more data through the API for some time now but so far they have gone unfulfilled.
What the Up3 really has going for it though is the app which is well designed and highly functional. Setting everything up took about 5 minutes and it instantly began tracking everything. The SmartCoach feature is interesting as it skirts around providing direct health advice but tries to encourage certain, well established healthy behaviours. All the functions work as expected with my favourite being the sleep alarm. Whilst it took a little tweaking to get right (it seemed to just go off at the time I set for the most part initially) once it’s done I definitely felt more awake when it buzzed me. It’s not a panacea to all your sleep woes though but it did give me insight into what behaviours might have been affecting my sleep patterns and what I could do to fix them.
The heart rate tracking seems relatively accurate from a trend point of view. I could definitely tell when I was exercising, sitting down or in a particularly heated meeting where my heart was racing. It’s definitely not 100% accurate as there were numerous spikes, dips and gaps in the readings which often meant that the daily average was not entirely reliable. Again it was more interesting to see the trending over time and linking deviations to certain behaviours. If accuracy is the name of the game however the Up3 is probably not for you as it simply can’t be used for more than averaging.
What’s really missing from the Up3 and it’s associated app is the integration and distillation of all the data it’s able to capture. Many have looked to heart rate monitoring as a way to get more accurate calorie burn rates but the Up3 only uses the pedometer input to do this. The various other sensor inputs could also prove valuable in determining passive calorie burn rate (I, for instance, tend to run “hotter” than most people, something the skin temperature sensor can pick up on) but again their data is unused. On a pure specification level the Up3 is the most advanced tracker out there but that means nothing if that technology isn’t put to good use.
Would I recommend buying one? I’m torn honestly. On the one hand it does do the basic functions very well and the app looks a lot better than anything the competition has put out so far. However you’re paying a lot for technology that you’re simply not going to use, hoping that it will become available sometime in the future. Unless the optical heartrate tracking of other fitness trackers isn’t cutting it for you then it’s hard to recommend the Up3 above them and other, simpler trackers will provide much of the same benefit for a lower price. Overall the Up3 has the potential to be something great, but paying for potential, rather than actual functionality, is something that only early adopters do. That was an easier sell 6 months ago but with only one major update since then I don’t think many are willing to buy something on spec.
Much like my current aversion to smartwatches I’m equally disinterested in the idea of a fitness tracker. As a man of science I do like the idea in principle as anyone looking to better themselves should track as much data as they can to ensure what they’re doing is actually having an effect. However all the devices on market don’t appear to be much more than smart pedometers with nice interfaces something which doesn’t really track the kinds of things I’m looking for (since most of my exercise isn’t aerobic in nature). I don’t discount their value for others but if I was going to invest in one it’d have to do a lot more than just be an accelerometer attached to my wrist.
I may have found one in AIRO, a rather Jony Ive-esque device coming from a new 3 person startup. For the most part it sports the same features as other health trackers, presumably through the same method of an incorporated accelerometer, but its real claim to fame comes from its apparent ability to detect metabolites in your blood, without having to cut yourself to do so. AIRO also claims to be able to detect the quality of the food you’re eating as well which, from what I can tell by looking at their website, seems to be related to the macro-nutrient breakdown. As someone who regularly struggles to get enough calories to support their goals (yeah I’m one of those people, believe me it’s not as great as you might think it is) and really can’t be bothered to use a calorie tracker this is of particular interest to me, something I’d consider plonking down a chunk of change for.
Of course the sceptic in me was instantly roused by the idea that a device could non-invasively determine such things because such technology would be a boon to diabetics, not to mention any research program looking at monitoring caloric intake. Indeed something like this is so far out of left field that most of the mainstream coverage of the device doesn’t go into just how it works, except for referring to the fact that it measures calories and macro-nutrient breakdown based on light. It sounds like a great theory but since there’s no source material provided to show how their method works, nor any validation using standard means like doubly labelled water or even short term experiments with strictly controlled caloric intake.
I was going to leave it at that, and indeed not even write about it since I wanted to see some validation of the idea before I said anything, but then I stumbled across this article from ScienceDaily which links to a German study that has been able to measure blood glucose with infrared light. The function of their device sounds different to the one AIRO purports, instead using the infrared light to penetrate the skin and cause a resonance in the glucose within the bloodstream which their device can then pick up. Their device sounds like it would be anything but wearable however with a “shoebox sized” device planned to be released within the next few years. This doesn’t validate the idea behind AIRO but it does lend some credence to the idea that you’d be able to extract some kind of information about blood metabolites using light pulses.
So I’m definitely intrigued now, possibly to the point of shelling out the requisite $159 to get one delivered when they come out, but I would love to see some validation of the device by the inventors to prove their device can do what they say it can do. It’s not like this would be particularly difficult, hell if they send me a prototype device I’ll happily engage in a tightly controlled caloric diet in order to prove it can measure everything, and it would go a long way to convince the sceptics that what they’ve made really is as good as they say it is. Heck I bet there’s even a couple other startups that’d love to do some testing to prove that their products also work as intended (I’m looking at you, Soylent) and having that kind validation would be extremely valuable for both involved.