Wearable technology holds cautious promise

For better or worse, smarter or dumber, the booming industry of wearable technology continues to shape the landscape of health and fitness today. Fitbit announced last week that it has sold more than a million units of Fitbit Blaze, the company’s first smartwatch, in the first month of sales. Fitbit Alta, its newest fitness tracker, has performed equally well. As these statistics show, there’s no doubt we live in a time of hyperawareness when it comes to fitness — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

In an era plagued with an obesity epidemic, building a culture of self-surveillance just can’t hurt. Nearly one in three people alive today is obese or overweight, a global issue affecting people of all ages and incomes. No country has succeeded in lowering its obesity rates since 1980.

In these dire times, wearable technology may be our saving grace.

A trend that brings fitness and healthy eating back into the spotlight, wearables have become increasingly present in the lives of Americans — and in particular, millennials. Currently, according to a Nielsen Connected Life Report, one in six Americans owns a wearable tech item. Of these owners, 48 percent are ages 18 to 34.

The reach is global as well. According to the International Business Times, Forrester Research reported that 35 percent of millennials will buy a fitness wearable in the next year. The International Food Information Council’s 2015 Food and Health survey found that 36 percent of millennials track daily food and beverage intake via an app or other means. Diet documentation is especially important because no matter how much exercise, you can’t outrun a bad diet.

This phenomenon results from the tech advances of the past decade. The Nike+iPod Sport Kit debuted in 2006 as a wireless sensor placed in specialized shoes to sync biometric data to iPod Nanos. At the 2008 Techcrunch50 conference, Fitbit CEO James Park showcased a tracker that had transformed the age-old pedometer into an aid that would give people a better sense of their daily activity levels, from caloric burn to sleep patterns. Today, hundreds of different fitness trackers exist. Devices include the Apple Watch, Nike Fuel Band, Jawbone UP and Samsung Galaxy Gear.

In addition to function, form and aesthetics also carry great weight in design, a testament to how integrated these devices have and will become in consumers’ daily lives. Wired magazine deemed 2015 the year “wearables will stop being so ugly,” a statement that notes how intertwined fitness, fashion and tech are. In March 2015, Intel partnered with Google and the Swiss luxury watchmaker, TAG Heuer to develop a “distinctive smartwatch.” According to Wired, Swarovski has been working with wearable manufacturer Misfit since 2013 to develop the Swarovski Shine collection, which features bejeweled activity trackers synced to your phone, marking the advent of smart jewelry.

In recent years, the industry has even embedded sensors into clothing. The world’s first “smart” bra, the OMbra, debuted at the Consumer Electronics Show this year. The team behind the OMbra also designed 2014’s Ralph Lauren Polo Tech shirt, which features silver fiber sensors knitted in to collect biological and physiological data synced to an app.

Though it may all seem too futuristic for comfort, wearable tech has its benefits, especially for athletics. Just this week, according to the Associated Press, Major League Baseball’s playing rules committee approved two devices for use during the game — the Motus Baseball Sleeve measures elbow stress and the Zephyr Bioharness monitors heart and breathing rates. Both will help catch harmful habits before they lead to injuries.

Wearable tech has great transformative potential in healthcare as well. Here at USC, the Center of Body Computing promotes collaboration among experts from technology, healthcare and entertainment to develop transformative healthcare solutions, including wearable sensors.

Outside the hospital room, these trackers also boost motivation for the everyday person because they hold their owners accountable. When every step you take is recorded, reaching a daily goal becomes more fulfilling. In the same way, they force us to reflect and confront different health issues, such as how much — or little — we sleep, an underrated concern especially among college students.

At the end of the day, these data-crunching gadgets that promise to help us live better, longer,and more fruitfully will prove helpful only if we understand that a Fitbit alone doesn’t work magic. Health is holistic, and the effectiveness of our Fitbits still boils down to us. After all, no matter how invincible a fitness tracker can make us feel, we can’t escape our midnight snacking or weekly all-nighters.

Valerie Yu is a senior majoring in English literature and biological sciences. She is also the blogs editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Heart of the Matter,” runs  every other Thursday.