Wearable health tech is currently in a transition, as it moves from checking our steps and calories to monitoring vital signs, and telling us what our data actually means. A recent study showed that data can in fact predict oncoming illness before we feel it, and many companies we've spoken to over the last year have emphasised how they're pushing beyond basic metrics.
This information isn't just helpful for us, but our doctors too. Show a medical practitioner your step count for the week and they'll probably do little more than shrug, but throw heart rate variability and other vital signs in, and you start to paint a more meaningful picture
Healthcare startup VivaLnk is one such company trying to move towards data that can really tell us things. It has two products in the pipeline, both of which are expected to arrive on the market this year. First is the Fever Scout, a continuous temperature monitor for kids. Worn under the arm, it's a wearable, rechargeable thermometer that relays information to a smartphone.
The Vital Scout is more for adults and designed worn on the chest. It provides information on vital signs including body temperature, respiration rate, heart rate, sleep quality, and even stress levels, which are measured by monitoring HR variability. What both of these wearables lack in smart features and all the other things we've come accustomed to seeing in wrist-worn device, they make up for in continual, accurate monitor. Or at least that's VivaLnk's promise.
"I feel like the conventional medical device industry is waiting to be disrupted," says VivaLnk CEO Jiang Li. "In the same way the car industry needed to be disrupted by Tesla".
Li agrees that we're in a bit of a transition phase in wearable health. Getting people to care about their health, which basic trackers do, is always a good thing, but getting to the next step of health devices may also require rethinking what wearable tech should look like. "The human body is a very complex system," says Li. "To get the best signal, you need to put the sensor in the right place."
"From my view I think the wrist worn device is the first chapter of the book, so getting early adopters to understand their steps and calories. But they're not enough to gain all the insights for your health. Then naturally people like you and I want more precise information and manage our health better. That's where getting more medical-grade data will be more relevant."
This is key: VivaLnk wants to provide data that can be taken to a doctor and actually have some use. But there are also obvious benefits in the user having access to continuous monitoring of vital signs. "Parents are getting up multiple times to check the temperature of their kids," says Li. "The Scout can monitor the body temperature for the sick child and send an alert [to the phone] if the temperature gets too high. So it can relieve the anxiety."
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The Fever Scout's objective is pretty clear, but it's the Vital Scout that could be most interesting. It's a chest strap designed to be worn all day, allowing it to keep a continual eye on your vitals. "The target usage case is to help people manage their overall wellness," says Li, who tells us the main difference between this and other trackers on the market is the accuracy.
"We believe with ECG sensor data it's providing much more precise information for heart rate and heart rate variability than wrist-worn devices," adds Li. He says that price wise, the Vital Scout will be competitive, but with such a large range of devices on the market it's hard to know what it will be "competitive" with.
VivaLnk has good form with wearable sensors, having teamed up in Google in 2014 to make the Motorola tattoo. The temporary stick-on was an NFC tag for unlocking the Moto X, and did go on sale, but VivaLnk didn't take the tattoo idea further. Yet the DNA is in its Scout wearables today, and Li even shows us another idea they were working on for a temperature-sensing tattoo.
What we thought was a simple sticker on Li's thermos turns out to be a prototype for a smart tattoo-like patch, which VivaLnk was toying with during its time working with Google. "It works in as far as the product works, but in the market, because it requires NFC, it has compatibility issues and range issues to push it harder," says Li, which is also why the Moto tech tattoo, while a fun experiment, was destined to go no further. "It was the first product we took to market, and we got some good experience."
This is the direction VivaLnk is going in. Health tracking tattoos might be quite a long way off, but wearables that are both discreet and provide medical-grade data are close.
"Once people can see how wearables can help their health, they're going to take a more serious look at medical grade devices," says Li. "Those devices are going to be a good link between health care professionals and normal consumers."