Fitbit and SpO2: Two years on, we're still waiting for the health sensor to be turned on

The health sensor that still lies dormant in Fitbit wearables
Fitbit and SpO2: Two years on
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In 2017, Fitbit made its foray into the smartwatch world with the Ionic. A fitness-focused watch that also brought with it a sensor first for Fitbit.

Fitbit included an SpO2 sensor in a bid to improve the serious health tracking powers of its wearable devices. After the Ionic, it was then placed inside of its Versa smartwatches and its flagship Charge 3 fitness tracker.

Essential reading: Pulse oximeter and SpO2 sensors explained

The only thing is the data it records is not currently available to customers. Not yet anyway. The hardware is there, but the sensor is effectively lying dormant – onboard but not online.

Since Fitbit introduced it to its own wearables, the likes of Garmin and its Vivosmart and Fenix wearables and select Amazfit watches have included similar sensor tech and is already letting users make use of the data it generates. And now Withings has pipped Fitbit with the launch of it the ScanWatch with a built in SpO2 and sleep apnea detection.

Speculation has put the impasse down to software issues or regulation (Fitbit have been fairly noncommittal about the situation).

Regardless, it is nearly two years that the sensor has not been producing results and some consumers want answers.


Tapping into your oxygen

Fitbit and SpO2: Two years on, we are still waiting for it to be turned on

Speaking to Wareable earlier this year, Fitbit CEO, Jack Park, indicated customers would not have to wait much longer to see results. “The SpO2 graph should be available for any device that has the SpO2 sensor on it. With SpO2, for the first time that will be visualized for users sometime this fall,” Park said.

Fitbit are banking on SpO2 data forming a key pillar of their Sleep Score metric that measures sleep quantity and quality. Quantifying light, deep and REM sleep tells part of the story and blood oxygen estimates can fill out the picture.

Read this: Finding the best Fitbit wearable for you

One of the areas where SpO2 sensors could have most impact is in the detection of sleep apnea. The condition causes people to stop breathing during sleep, and monitoring blood oxygen levels can flag this. It is linked to a host of other conditions including heart disease, cancer and obesity, and is an area that Fitbit is keen to address.

“We’re in dialogues with the FDA, we can’t really control regulators so it is a process, but we have finished our clinical trials on apnea, so it will just be a matter of time before that’s available to users,” Park said.

Fitbit launched the Ionic, their first smartwatch, in August 2017, and hyped its SpO2 sensor. In a carefully worded press release they stated that:

“The introduction of a relative SpO2 sensor for estimating blood oxygen levels opens the potential for tracking important new indicators about your health, such as sleep apnea,” it read.

The press release concluded with a reminder that it contained “forward looking statements” that “are only predictions and may differ materially from actual results due to a variety of factors.”

Such statements are hardly unusual in the tech sector, but a glance at the Fitbit user forums reveals numerous requests for SpO2 updates from increasingly agitated customers.

“I'm very disappointed that I still do not have the SpO2 reading as that is one of the main reasons I changed from my Charge 2,” wrote one Fitbit forum member in April 2019.

“One of the selling points, but still not available? Ridiculous,” wrote another.

“I have little hope that the SpO2 sensor will ever become a useful feature of the Charge 3. Kind of wishing I hadn't bought the Charge 3...” wrote another.

Falling behind the competition

Fitbit and SpO2: Two years on, we are still waiting for it to be turned on

In an increasingly congested market offering data that competitors can’t is a big advantage. Garmin has active SpO2 sensor producing data for customers and Fitbit, who have traditionally dominated the wearable sleep science market, could see that position come under threat.

Essential reading: Best fitness trackers to buy right now

“I don’t think it is the devices themselves that are the issue,” said James Moar, lead analyst at Juniper Research. “It’s down to the software being ready. When the software side is ready you can just flick a switch and the hardware will be on and working in providing information.”

Moar is not surprised that some devices contain dormant tech that is not yet providing data for users. While it might frustrate customers it is also indicative of the “drive for more complex wearables” in an industry that has seen manufacturers shift “towards smartwatch positioning to try to up their average cost per device rather than focusing on outright sales growth,” he said.

Once the technology is actively producing results Moar believes that the benefits for users’ health could be substantial, with wearable devices changing the way data is collected and used in the medical sector.

Worth the wait?

Fitbit and SpO2: Two years on, we are still waiting for it to be turned on

When Dr. Douglas Kirsch, a sleep medicine specialist at Atrium Health in North Carolina, started his career sleep could only be medically assessed in a laboratory. But technology has changed that.

Read this: Understanding the sleep stats on your wearable

“Over the last five years, you've seen a massive growth in both home-based testing on a clinical level, as well a massive growth in consumer technology looking at sleep,” he said. “Consumers are actually interested in sleep as an aspect of their health.”

While Kirsch cautions that the data wearable devices collect is “not necessarily representative of the same thing that we test in a sleep laboratory” he is optimistic about SpO2 monitoring in consumer wearables.

“With Fitbit, I think their belief is that they will be able to give their consumers not a diagnostic test for sleep apnea, but at least a screening mechanism for sleep apnea. It may drive a number of patients who currently don't see sleep apnea as a problem for themselves to a sleep doctor, and that would potentially improve their health,” Kirsch said.

Once the Fitbit SpO2 sensor is online it could potentially impact the way consumers understand not only their sleep and but also the role it plays in their health.

But until then the data that is almost literally at their fingertips will remain tantalizingly out of reach.

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