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 ‚Äď 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
Speaking to Wareable earlier this year, Fitbit CEO, Jack Park, indicated customers would not have to wait much longer to see results. ‚ÄúThe 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,‚ÄĚ 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.
‚ÄúWe‚Äôre in dialogues with the FDA, we can‚Äôt 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‚Äôs available to users,‚ÄĚ 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:
‚ÄúThe 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,‚ÄĚ it read.
The press release concluded with a reminder that it contained ‚Äúforward looking statements‚ÄĚ that ‚Äúare only predictions and may differ materially from actual results due to a variety of factors.‚ÄĚ
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.
‚ÄúI'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,‚ÄĚ wrote one Fitbit forum member in April 2019.
‚ÄúOne of the selling points, but still not available? Ridiculous,‚ÄĚ wrote another.
‚ÄúI 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...‚ÄĚ wrote another.
Falling behind the competition
In an increasingly congested market offering data that competitors can‚Äôt 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
‚ÄúI don‚Äôt think it is the devices themselves that are the issue,‚ÄĚ said James Moar, lead analyst at Juniper Research. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs 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.‚ÄĚ
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 ‚Äúdrive for more complex wearables‚ÄĚ in an industry that has seen manufacturers shift ‚Äútowards smartwatch positioning to try to up their average cost per device rather than focusing on outright sales growth,‚ÄĚ he said.
Once the technology is actively producing results Moar believes that the benefits for users‚Äô health could be substantial, with wearable devices changing the way data is collected and used in the medical sector.
Worth the wait?
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.
‚ÄúOver 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,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúConsumers are actually interested in sleep as an aspect of their health.‚ÄĚ
While Kirsch cautions that the data wearable devices collect is ‚Äúnot necessarily representative of the same thing that we test in a sleep laboratory‚ÄĚ he is optimistic about SpO2 monitoring in consumer wearables.
‚ÄúWith 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,‚ÄĚ 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.
When wearables and serious health collide
- Ultimate guide on how to use Apple HealthWe explain how to view your data, sync from your apps and more
- A hybrid with heart: Withings Move ECG reviewStyle and innovation equals the Withings of old
- How Fitbit Premium will get you fit and healthyThe lowdown on how Fitbit is ready to get more personal about your data