Why Fitbit finally built a smartwatch, and why the bigger story lies underneath

How new sensors could teach Fitbit so much more about you
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"Why Ionic? Naming is always a tough challenge," says Fitbit CEO James Park. As the man who almost called the company Fitberry back in 2007, he should know. "But for us Ionic had that one idea it was rooted in science – and the fact it seemed very holistic and comprehensive. It flows well."

It's fitting that Fitbit's first smartwatch is timed to mark its 10th anniversary. It also seems peculiar that the Fitbit even considers this its first "proper" smartwatch, when the Blaze is, for all intents and purposes, just that.

"The reason for us being so emphatic about it is that we realised when we started developing the product that the smartwatch form factor was the ideal platform for a lot of the things we wanted to do on the health side," says Park. Fitbit wanted its next device to feel like a next-generation jump, rather than an iterative update, and a bigger form factor was essential to make that happen.

Hand-on impressions: Fitbit Ionic review

And the Fitbit Ionic is certainly the most feature-rich wearable the company has ever made, the sum of parts both built and procured. The Fitstar name is no more, now part of a new platform called Fitbit Coach, while Fitbit's acquisition of Coin finally bears fruit in Fitbit Pay, its new wearable payment platform. And let's not forget Pebble of course, which at the time of being acquired by Fitbit was building a new SDK that lives on in Ionic. Fitbit says this will make it easy for developers to build and share apps for the watch; they won't need a mobile app, nor be a registered Android or iOS developer to publish. Fitbit is learning from the Pebble playbook.

"We've gotten a lot of strong feedback from the Pebble community since the acquisition," Park tells Wareable. "I think a lot of developers and Pebble users were nervous about what the future might unfold, but I think people might be glad – we've taken the core of what Pebble's worked on and ported it over to Fitbit devices, and our plan is absolutely to engage the developer community."

Why Fitbit finally built a smartwatch, and why the bigger story lies underneath

Fitbit's smartwatch delivers on fitness features – GPS, NFC, water resistance, a handful of apps – but in the months leading up to the reveal it was the subject of troubling rumours of delays and production problems. When we ask Park if there was ever any truth to those claims, he remains coy, but won't deny them. "This is the most challenging product we've created," he says. "What I'd like to say is, with the commitments we made to the outside world, I don't think that ever changed. Internally we might set aggressive goals, but that's something that's super motivational for the team, and ultimately we're still able to deliver the product".

We got to this idea of space exploration

As for the design, early leaked renders had a mixed reaction to say the least. In a presentation on the creation of the Ionic, Fitbit design VP Jonah Becker said the geometric language is no accident, but borrows from the look of the Fitbit Blaze. "It's based on hexagons, octagons, shapes that you see in architectural structures," he said, explaining the angular look.

"We got to this idea of space exploration," Becker added, highlighting the aerospace-grade aluminum and slight curvature of the display as Fitbit's celestial reference points. Oh, and if the burnt orange aluminum model reminds you of the Red Planet – more specifically, of Ridley Scott's The Martian – Becker says that was the direct inspiration.

Coming up on infrared

Why Fitbit finally built a smartwatch, and why the bigger story lies underneath

But the bigger story is what lies underneath the bezels and the apps, in Fitbit's new health sensors. The Ionic is the first Fitbit wearable to use three different sensors – green, red and infrared. To date we've only seen the green optics for measuring heart rate, but with the new wavelengths Fitbit is taking on medical-grade technology typically found in pulse oximeters, which will open the door for Fitbit to track other physiological metrics like relative SpO2. That will allow Fitbit to detect sleep apnea, a condition affecting an estimated 1 in 15 people where breathing is interrupted during sleep, raising the risk of serious health problems like high blood pressure and diabetes. Yet so many people don't realise they have it.

"Having relative SpO2 really opens the door for doing things like sleep apnea," Dr Shelten Yuen, Fitbit's director of research, tells Wareable. "We've done studies trying to figure out if you can infer this only with motion, and it turns out you can't. That relative SpO2 sensor actually seeing the desaturations in your blood, that really allows us a lot more power to discern if someone has apnea or not."

Diabetes is one of the key conditions we're looking at

Fitbit also tells us it's also looking into atrial fibrillation – a condition that causes an irregular heart rhythm and can lead to poor blood flow – and is confident it can reliably track this with its existing sensors, hinting this might be doable with optical heart rate alone. "The technology for the most part is there, the sensors are there," says Yuen, "and it's really about making smart inference algorithms and going through the appropriate regulation requirements." Yuen says stress is another physiological component that's in need of quantification, and one Fitbit is looking more carefully at.

When we'll actually see Fitbit offer these new insights is unclear, but it's close – Fitbit says "the not-too-distant future" – and when it does, it could completely change the game for the company. But in the meantime, James Park says these new sensors will be collecting data that will feed into and tweak Fitbit's sleep apnea algorithms. When Fitbit's apnea detection does roll out, only those who need to be alerted will know it's there. "It's almost like a check engine light for your body – there are a lot of lights on your car dashboard that are not on, and you hope never come on, but that doesn't mean all of the sensors in the car aren't working," says Park. "That's the same thing with the blood oxygen sensor in Ionic. It's going to be constantly working in the background, detecting if something adverse has happened to your blood oxygen levels."

It's going to be constantly working in the background, detecting if something adverse has happened to your blood oxygen levels.

With one eye on Fitbit's entry into the smartwatch market, the other right now is on Apple, which is also rumoured to be boring deeper into health and fitness. Earlier in the year word surfaced that Tim Cook had assembled a crack team to solve glucose tracking on the wrist for diabetics. "Diabetes is actually one of the key conditions that we're looking at," Park tells Wareable, but suggests Fitbit is a while away from the holy grail of tracking blood glucose from the wrist.

"There's been a multi-decade search for optical technology to track people's blood glucose, but I think one good way to set people's expectations is that if you look at today's continuous glucose monitors from Dexcom, which is considered the state of the art, has about a 10% MARD, effectively an error rate, and that's with a finger stick calibration that's done every few hours. So I think there's still a way to go." Park says that in the short term, Fitbit's answer to the diabetes problem may lie in management and guidance, but again, this is all still in the lab.

What's even more interesting is that Fitbit will be unlocking its new sensors to app developers, which could pave the way for some interesting health applications in the future. To date, smartwatches have struggled to provide a compelling answer to the question "Why have apps?".

"We don't pretend to have the solution to that question," says Thomas Sarlandie, Fitbit's director of software engineering. "But we think there's one category that's obviously a very compelling use case on the wrist, and that's fitness apps."

Times have changed

Why Fitbit finally built a smartwatch, and why the bigger story lies underneath

This is a critical moment for Fitbit, in what it has itself described as a "transition year". For its 10 years as a company, Fitbit has spent a large part as the poster child of fitness trackers, and even counts Barack Obama as a long-term fan ("The first time I met him, he said, 'Hey do you like all the free publicity I'm giving you?'").

But the wearables market has shifted, and Fitbit has found itself squeezed between cheaper-brand names like Xiaomi on one end and Apple at the other. Park tells us we'll see a simplification across its product line over time, but is the Fitbit chief concerned by the transforming wearable tech market?

"It's an interesting dynamic because you do see a lot of players falling out, but the importance of wearables is actually really increasing," he says. "I think what's happening now is the natural consolidation of the industry, and I think we at Fitbit are fortunate that we're now one of the last ones standing with sufficient resources, the employee base, the R&D capabilities and the brand and the community to really have a profound impact on people's health."

"I don't think we've cracked the nut – or anyone in this industry has cracked the nut in really getting people on a pervasive basis to be active. We've made great strides, but I don't think that's a solved problem."

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Hugh Langley


Now at Business Insider, Hugh originally joined Wareable from TechRadar where he’d been writing news, features, reviews and just about everything else you can think of for three years.

Hugh is now a correspondent at Business Insider.

Prior to Wareable, Hugh freelanced while studying, writing about bad indie bands and slightly better movies. He found his way into tech journalism at the beginning of the wearables boom, when everyone was talking about Google Glass and the Oculus Rift was merely a Kickstarter campaign - and has been fascinated ever since.

He’s particularly interested in VR and any fitness tech that will help him (eventually) get back into shape. Hugh has also written for T3, Wired, Total Film, Little White Lies and China Daily.

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