Fitbit has been living on our bodies for a decade now – such a long time that when I ask co-founder Eric Friedman about those early startup days, the uncertainties he and James Park once shared seem ludicrous. “The real question when we first launched Fitbit was: Is this going to be a giftable product? Is it something where I can say, ‘Hey, here’s a Fitbit, I care about your health’, or does it come across as, ‘Here’s a Fitbit, you’re fat’?”
Tens of millions of sold devices later, it's safe to say that Fitbit itself has laughed off those concerns – all the way to the bank. The company is currently riding a wave of success of the Fitbit Versa smartwatch and will soon launch its next fitness tracker, the Fitbit Charge 3.
It was last year that Fitbit released its first smartwatch, the Ionic. It was the company's first device with a proper app ecosystem, but it was also late to the party. By the time the Ionic rolled around the Apple Watch had a stronghold on the market, while Samsung and the gamut of Wear OS smartwatch manufacturers were in their groove. The Ionic received a tepid reception: it was unattractive, riddled with bugs, and by no means cheap. But its biggest failing, admits Fitbit design VP Jonah Becker, was timing.
In retrospect we could have been more clear on the Ionic
“I think part of it, if I was to step back, was the context of the environment in which we launched it,” he says. “It was technically our first smartwatch because of its capabilities, but if you launched it and the Versa had already been out, it becomes clearly performance oriented, and I think in retrospect we could have been more clear to drive that position. Or we should have thought about launching Versa first before going higher up in the performance or health pyramid.”
With smartwatches predicted to fuel the growth of wearables, and the line between smartwatch and fitness tracker blurring more by the day, Fitbit has at least found itself in a better place. But the company's hottest product is neither a fitness tracker or a smartwatch; it’s data.
“I think where we’re going over the next 10 years – we’re very much a data collection display company,” says co-founder Friedman.
Every minute these wearables are wrapped around our wrists is time spent vacuuming up precious biometric data, all of which is coming together to form the next chapter of Fitbit’s story: deep health.
The Ionic, Versa and Charge 3 are the company’s first devices to include a relative SpO2 sensor, which allows Fitbit to track oxygen saturation in the blood. Fitbit says this will eventually allow it to screen for atrial fibrillation, something the new Apple Watch Series 4 will also soon be able to do, as well as sleep apnea. But in order to do all that, Fitbit needs FDA clearance.
Fitbit's one of just nine companies to be part of a new FDA fast track consortium, which will allow it to get health tech devices to market faster
Fitbit's one of just nine companies (yes, including Apple) to be part of a new FDA fast track consortium, which will allow it to get health tech devices to market faster, while still having government oversight.
“I think it’s been a great industry-government collaboration,” says Friedman. “It’s been a back and forth dialogue. We had a bunch of representatives here for a couple of days, and I was impressed. I was like, I want to work with these people. They didn’t come and say, ‘Here’s a process, go through it’. It’s being done and developed in real time, which means the first thing will definitely not be fast, but once they’ve developed a process I’m cautiously optimistic it could be good and I think it’s something that could potentially become a global standard.”
The next chapter of your health
A mood board during the creation of the Fitbit Ionic
Fitbit won’t say when it will be able to switch on AFib and sleep apnea detection, or whether that will be before Apple puts the same feature live on its latest smartwatch, but the SpO2 sensors are already active and collecting information for Fitbit’s giant data bank.
Soon the company will roll out something called Sleep Score in beta, which will pull SpO2 data to detect disturbed breathing and other disruptions that occur during sleep. “Folks who suffer from more types of breathing disturbances or disturbances during sleep might feel like their sleep is bad but often adjust to it,” says Shelten Yuen, Fitbit's VP of research. “This will be an objective way to determine that.”
Once cleared with the FDA, Fitbit will be able to screen for sleep apnea, AFib and possibly other things. But the fact alone that Fitbit or anyone has managed to get this technology onto the wrist deserves plaudits.
“It’s another case where it wasn’t meant to be on the wrist necessarily, so there’s a lot of design challenges,” says Yuen. “Optical sensing of heart rate on your finger was well understood leading up to us doing it. Knowing it could work on the wrist was conceivable but not at all clear that it would actually work. Pulse ox on the wrist is another case of that.”
What's even more fascinating is that this technology won't have lived on our bodies for such long periods of time, and by doing so it could open up the door to all sorts of revelations – much like sleep has also done for Fitbit.
“When you’re in a hospital you have a relatively controlled environment,” says Yuen. “When you’re in everyday life, like our users are, you can actually monitor them for months before you have to give any sort of ruling as whether something is going on. So in some ways I’d say the criteria for what you establish as accuracy can be different because when you have the benefit of looking over longitudinal data, sometimes looking at relative trends is way more important than having a single snapshot.”
The move to healthcare
Data, data, data. Solely as a device maker, Wall Street would have reason to fear for Fitbit’s future, but the company has been tapping into other revenue streams, including some potentially lucrative roads into healthcare, to hedge itself.
Fitbit’s also forged partnerships with health companies like Dexcom, and earlier this year invested $6 million into mysterious glucose-monitoring startup Sano, which has been working on a minimally invasive patch for diabetes sufferers.
“I think they’re working on some really interesting technology,” says Friedman. “I think non-invasive glucose is pretty interesting. There are a number of things we’re working on internally and others externally, and we felt there was enough interesting potential there that it was something we wanted to be close to.
It's one thing to tell someone to not eat junk food… it's another to see what it does to your body
“You get close to something by acquiring it, by partnering or investing, and we felt that investment was the right vehicle in this case to remain close. I think they are also looking at if there’s a consumer angle as well, and that dovetails with our strategy. Traditionally pulse was a medical thing and we made it consumer. They’ve got a similar angle and that’s really interesting to us.”
Which leads us to the inevitable question about Fitbit’s internal ambitions with diabetes. “Full disclosure, we’ve looked at it,” says Yuen, “and it’s a very challenging problem if at all possible to actually solve in a purely non-invasive way.”
While that technology may never come, Fitbit sees huge potential in giving users a more accessible way to visualise their glucose levels. “I wore a Dexcom monitor briefly and I drank a can of coke,” says Friedman. “I saw my glucose shoot up. I don't have diabetes by the way. I don’t have pre-diabetes. And I was like, oh my God, I’m going to die. I’ve not drunk coke since then.”
As Eric adds, it's one thing to tell someone they shouldn't eat junk food. “It’s another thing to see what it does to your body. Then the activity is trying to drive those behaviour changes.”
The evolution of design
Designing products around these sensors isn't easy, and it's been one of the biggest challenges since one day in 2011 when Shelten Yuen strapped together a crude heart rate monitor using Radio Shack parts and tried running with it.
“You could see the heart rate signal on the wrist, but it was just bad,” he says. It was a failure – “but it uncovered a lot of issues.” From there the team worked to find a viable way of doing optical heart rate tracking from the wrist, cutting through all the noise and ambient light. They even discovered that running under the cover of trees was a problem, as the sensor mistook the intermittent light passing through for heart beats.
I think back to some of the Livestrong bands and what happened there
That started off a wave of different prototypes. “I think we ended up with 13 or so over the years, which progressively moved towards the Fitbit Surge,” says Yuen, the Surge being Fitbit's first wearable with an optical heart rate sensor.
Take a look across the timeline of Fitbit devices and you can see an evolution in design that charts with the progression of the sensors inside.
“I see different generations in the product and some of their associations with the maturation of the wearables space,” says Becker, picking up an old Fitbit Flex and one of the original Fitbit Charge bands from a small museum of devices scattered in front of him.
“I think back to some of the Livestrong bands and what happened there in terms of everyone having the same coloured bands and messages. There was this moment of, I raise my arm in the air and say, yes, I’m part of this movement.” Indeed there was a time where Fitbit was synonymous with the fitness tracker, and owning one of its devices felt like being part of a club.
But as the market began to saturate and Fitbit tried to do more with its wearables, that changed. “I think its gone from something that says, I’m part of this early movement, to something that could be a fundamental part of your everyday life. And if you look at some of the palettes and the form factors, there’s more breadth now. There are things that are very sophisticated in terms of dark leathers and colours and palettes, there are things that are bringing in more of a fashion element.”
Move to the latest generation of Fitbit’s wearables – the Ionic, Versa and Charge 3 – and there’s a more obvious and consistent design language, one that draws on hexagons, octagons and more angular structures. “There’s a lot of strength in these geometric structures,” says Becker. "You see them used in architecture, you see them in honeycombs.” But Fitbit, like Apple, has stuck to square displays for its smartwatches, and it doesn’t sound like that will change in the future.
“There is without a doubt a comfort people have with round watches on their wrist due to the history and the fact the majority of watches in the world and through time have been round," says Becker. "Watches and clocks are round because timekeeping is hands moving around in a circle. We are in a digital age which means typography, graphs, the kinds of things we are displaying on a health and fitness smartwatch are different.
“It’s absolutely something we’ve looked at from a display standpoint, a UX standpoint, from a wearability standpoint, but after looking at the kind of things we wanted to do from a user experience standpoint, we decided that was not the right path.” Luxury devices are also not in Fitbit's interest. “I come back to the company vision which is to help everyone in the world be healthier. Luxury does not do that,” says Becker.
“We want our products and price points to be accessible and I don’t think pushing luxury, doing a $5,000 solid gold Versa achieves that. Yes its a PR play and you see it in a couple of websites and fashion magazines, but does it move the needle in terms of driving health for broader populations? Not necessarily.”
But there is potential to go beyond the wrist, and it's something Fitbit is thinking about. “We’ve looked at the ear, we've looked all over the body and off the body,” says Yuen. “At the end of the day though it does come down to form factor and social acceptance. So when people want to measure their HR, they're wearing something on their wrist, it makes sense to measure it from their wrist.”
"We’re interested in everything,” adds Friedman. “Every sensor under the sun. We prioritise, but we’re open to everything because we need to try a lot of new things. The market will continue to change – and new things will become more socially acceptable.”
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