​James Park: Heart rate accuracy and the future of Fitbit

We ask Fitbit's CEO what wearables will look like in 2020

If there's one man that's changed the face of wearables, it's James Park. The CEO of Fitbit started the company back in 2007 and has turned the company into one of the great success stories of the last decade.

And when it comes to wearables, its success is unrivalled. In the UK, Fitbit enjoys an incredible 90% market share, and the company floated for $358 million when it went public in 2015. It is credited with shifting 5.7 million devices every quarter and perhaps the greatest accolade is that to many consumers, "Fitbit" has become a colloquial term for fitness trackers in general.

Essential reading: Fitbit Charge 2 review | Fitbit Flex 2 review

But the company has had its fair share of issues too. User rashes, shareholder jitters and a handful of lawsuits over accuracy have also meant Fitbit has hit the headlines for the wrong reasons.

We caught up with James Park at IFA 2016, and started off by tackling the big question about Fitbit's heart rate accuracy.

The heart rate battle

Fitbit has been embroiled in a very public lawsuit over the accuracy of its heart rate tech, something the company continues to dispute. We were curious to find out if Park felt his company was unfairly taking flak:

"It's accurate to say that we're probably taking the brunt of all this because we're the leaders," he said.

But Park admits that Fitbit (and other optical sensors) aren't up to the standard of chest straps quite yet – and that it could take years to exceed their accuracy.

"I think we're probably a few years out from, dare I say it, exceeding the performance of chest straps.

"I think [heart rate monitoring] devices are pretty close…when they work. But what we have seen is that there's a lot of other devices out there which refuse to give you a reading if it's too difficult, so what's the point in having a sensor if it's not working 100% of the time.

"We're very confident in the accuracy of our products," he continued. "I mean that plaintiffs, lawyers, whoever, can run as many tests as they want to put people in the worst possible light, but if you look at third party and consumer reports they place the device as 'very accurate'. I think that no-one's publicly ever done this, but if you benchmarked us against other heart rate devices on the market, there would be pretty surprising results."

Why no GPS?

One of the big criticisms of Fitbit's range is the lack of GPS on its devices (other than the ageing Fitbit Surge, of course) and this seems all the more perplexing when even by Park's estimates, running is one of the key activities from Fitbit users.

"With the addition of heart rate, we're seeing more people engaging in cardio activities. Running is the big one," he told us.

But Park believes that until a single device can cover all the benefits of carrying a smartphone, wearable GPS isn't a priority. And it doesn't seem like the company is set to be the one to solve those problems:

"You have to understand why people run with their phones – it might be music, it might be the ability to make emergency calls. You're better off letting the phone do what it does best and that's GPS, and letting the wearable do what it does best which is notifications and seeing the display in real-time when you run."

But that reluctance to follow the likes of Garmin in integrating GPS for runners doesn't mean the company isn't innovating with sensors. The Charge 2 harnesses VO2 Max and heart rate variability (HRV) to monitor stress, and Park says this is just the beginning.

"It's the start of our focus on how sensors can be applied to wellness. HRV, which is what the Relax app is based on, is a new metric for us which took a lot of algorithmic development," Park explained.

"What I can say is that future sensors we develop will unlock more wellness and stress management functionality. We have a good idea of where sensors and machine learning technologies are heading."

Tracking women

While most people would think that the fitness trackers are a new fad, Park has spent nearly 10 years at the helm of Fitbit. We asked how he felt the industry had changed.

"What we're finding is that there's no one-size-fits-all, so that's one of the biggest changes we've seen," Park said. "Consumers have got more sophisticated, and so we have had to broaden our own line-up of products."

Another big change is how important women embracing wearable tech has become. Park believes that Fitbit is one of the few tech companies "with a heavy female interest", which he believes is a big opportunity, with the company "doubling the market".

"You can tell by how heavily we've focused on the accessories strategy. So if you look at Flex 2 which just came out, there's a lot of focus on accessories and partnerships with fashion brands Tory Burch and Vera Wang."

Collaborations and fashion partnerships have been a big focus for Fitbit, and Park told us that he hasn't had to work that hard to get fashion brands involved.

"The very first time was Tory Burch," he said. "It was her team that reached out to us, because many of her staff were avid Fitbit users. So they saw the opportunity to develop accessories when we announced [the Fitbit Flex] and it was hugely successful. The accessories sold out within hours, we got approached by other fashion brands and that really opened the floodgates for us."

The future of Fitbit

Every forecast and industry analyst seems to predict fitness trackers being absorbed by smartwatches. Yet while the smartwatch has yet to catch on, fitness trackers seem to be going from strength to strength. And Park believes the company is going to have to become more than just a fitness tracking company in the future:

"I think it will be difficult to call the market in five years fitness trackers or smartwatches, or whatever industry experts want to characterise it. Fitbit will always be health and fitness focussed first. But I do see a lot of general purpose functionality being weaved into the experience over time, so you can't see general purpose devices vs fitness tracking devices. They're going to look pretty similar," he said.

Yet Park's vision for the company is more data, more sensors and more analysis: "We want to be integrated with healthcare systems around the world. And I think these devices with more sophisticated sensors really have the chance to impact people's health outcomes.

"In 2020 Fitbit should be like seatbelts and airbags in automotive technology today. You'd be crazy to buy a car without one, and one of the goals of Fitbit would be to say 'hey, it's crazy to leave your house without a Fitbit because it could literally save your life.'"

And while Park and his company may have changed the face of wearable tech, he says that complacency won't be its undoing.

"We still have dominant market share, but even where there's no competition, we still have a healthy sense of internal paranoia, so we're not going to slacken off."

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  • TaithBedwenAria·

    Why does no one ask him about Apple HealthKit?

    I stopped using my Fitbit, and will not by another, because there is no HealthKit support. 

  • runsome·

    "You have to understand why people run with their phones . . ."

    This is definitely a problem in the thinking of Fitbit.  Not everyone runs with a phone.  And I think it is keeping them out of the serious fitness market.  Admittedly that is a small chunk of people.  But given the lack of quality GPS and the fact that I've had two Fitbits fall apart on me in the last 2 months has taken away any faith I have in their products.

  • Fer·

    Does he really think people like sporting with their 5"+ phones?

    The first fitnesstrackers/smartwatches which can do everything from heart rate, GPS, making calls and messaging are already coming to the market. 

    By 2020 nobody wants to just know how many steps they have been taking that day.

  • Fer·

    He's thinking everything stays the same until 2020 and people love sporting with their phablets.

    Wakeup call: Apple and Google in 2020 will have smartwatche environments with watches in all shapes and sizes with all kinds of sensors from heart rate, GPS, to heart pressure, blood glucose, etc, etc.

  • JDonk·

    Avoid fitbit! I bought a fitbit charge for my wife at dick smith. The first one did not work straight out of the box, would not charge at all. Dick smith replaced immediately, same day as purchase. A few months later the new one stopped charging. Again, Dick Smith replaced with a brand new item. Now, 9 months later, this 3rd fitbit charge will not charge, the battery will not charge.

    Subsequently, Dick Smith has closed down in my area so I can not return for a refund.

    I contacted Fitbit, who are saying the original purchase is out of warranty but they will replace with the same model, but will not refund. They don't have enough faith in their own product to give a warranty on the brand new replacement fitbit charge thats only 9 months old!! I asked if the replacement they are willing to send will have a warranty but they didi not reply.

    They also will not allow me to pay the difference to upgrade to a better model!!

    Well, if you ask me thats pretty poor, they should write a book on how to lose customers because thats what they've done in this situation. Not only me but everyone I know I tell how bad the product is and the lack of faith they have in their product. I strongly recommend buying a more reputable brand.

    Fitbit is a waste of money and you will more than likely be disappointed.

  • CoachMike·

    Interesting point mentioning Apple and Google in 2020 will have a handle in the smart watch. How do you see Fitbit expanding to? Telecommunications? A.I.?

  • justme2·

    Until Fitbit syncs with Apple HealthKit, I will not purchase a new one to replace my Fitbit One.  Nearly all the other brands do.

    There is an active thread on the Fitbit website with over 3,000 pages asking for this feature over the past two years, and Fitbit is ignoring its customers.

  • justme2·

    I, too, have stopped using my Fitbit One.  Since Fitbit has ignored 3,000+ requests from their current users for integration with Apple HealthKit as most of the other brand trackers, I see that they have no regard for existing customers.

  • Jojoflojo·

    I like my surge, however I was slightly mislead by Fitbit. I thought you would be able to use the GPS and HR for any activity but it seems that it is only available for a couple! Run, bike and hike!

    I bought my surge contrary to what Fitbit believe so that I could stop damaging my phone battery. I used it before with a HR strap for two hour horse rides! I want to be able to carry my phone and have battery left incas of an accident or emergency! 

    Fitbit seem to have a default answer on their forums for you to submit your ideas for product development. However there is never any feedback or even a sorry we are not looking to provide this at the moment! 

    I am now having to track everything using bike or hike and then import into endomondo to change the name. And then it should auto import back into Fitbit ( however without the map!) it seems that the lack of ability to edit your exercise if also a big bone of contention! 

    FITBIT!!! Listen to your customers!!!!!!

  • NoMoreFitbit·

    Fitbit wants to own your data. I started using Fitbit in 2012 with the Ultra. I stopped a few years ago due to lack of Apple Health Kit support. I think it is quite disingenuous to tout iOS compatibility when you do not support Health Kit. I stopped using my Fitbit One - upgraded to an Apple Watch 1 (and now I am waiting for my Apple Watch Series 2), I got rid of my Aria - Withings Body Meter is a much better product anyway with more features (and I am now waiting for Black Friday to upgrade to the new Withings Body Cardio), and I stopped my Fitbit premium account. I also got a Jawbone Up2 for the sleep features and have since upgraded to the Oura Ring. It is obvious the I like IoT when it comes to health. Fitbit, due to their poor practices, will never get anymore of my money.

  • Julia87·

    I have a Charge HR, was thinking of getting a new Charge 2. That's not going to happen since I learned how they completely ignore people who want Healthkit integration. I tried to reach out to their support on Twitter, they linked to a 2 YEAR old thread that says "they're evaluating it". No news since 2014. No word to their customers. Goodbye, Fitbit! I love Apple more than I ever liked you.