We're seeing a bit of a trend of wearable companies – those that have traditionally focused on athletes and gym buffs – trying to appeal to the mainstream market. Garmin and Fitbit are two good examples of companies building more versatile devices, yet Polar has remained steadfastly focused on fitness.
And for the time being, at least, it seems that’s where it will stay. "Polar’s wheelhouse is athletic performance so it’s important for us to really stay very focused on that area of the market,” Polar’s USA president Tom Fowler tells Wareable. “If we start trying to compete with Apple and say we’re trying to get that customer, and appeal to that customer and go head to head with Apple in a pure smartwatch domain, that’s probably not going to deliver a great result for Polar.”
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Polar's decision to seems like a risky bet, with smartwatches predicted to power a major surge in the wearables market over the next few years. Polar is trying to win by differentiation, appealing to the more “hardcore” athletes than more mainstream devices like the Apple Watch which, while rapidly improving, aren't yet at the same level.
"Where we can win, and where we excel, is in really understanding the athletic use case, both fitness and high-end competitive athletes," says Fowler. "So we’re very focused on that. That may mean we’re not the right product for someone who’s looking for a smartwatch, but that’s also ok. We know who we are."
Meanwhile, Garmin is spreading its bets across a wide range of devices, including an LTE-enabled smartwatch, as it fends off the encroaching Apple Watch. Instead, Polar is doubling down on athletic performance, with additions like FitSpark, a feature of the Ignite smartwatch that mixes together fitness history and sleep quality data to tell users how much, and what type of, exercise they should be doing each day.
Red light, green light
But Polar is watching, always watching. While Fowler seems adamant that Polar has little interest in chasing Apple and Fitbit to make a more mass-appeal wearable, it is looking at what those companies are doing around deep health.
In fact, Polar's latest sports watch measures the autonomic nervous system, which is made up of the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system, and when examined can determine how recovered your body is from training. The ANS is calculated using a mix of resting heart rate, HRV and respiration rate, and blends this with FitSpark to give users personalised workouts depending on what their body is capable of taking on.
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In theory, that makes the ANS analysis far more useful than simply spitting out a number for users to interpret.
Polar also uses both green and red lights on its watches, the latter being able to look deeper into the dermis to glean more interesting data. Garmin has this in some of its recent wearables too, and leverages it to let users see their blood oxygen saturation – but it doesn't claim this as a medical tool. Fitbit's boss also told us he believes its devices can use this optical data to track for signs of atrial fibrillation.
We have chosen not to track SpO2, but we have the physical capabilities in our existing products
“We probably could measure SpO2,” says Fowler. “We have chosen not to do that just yet, but we have the physical capabilities in our existing products to do so. If and when we decide to do that will be determined largely on the basis of our confidence that what we’re delivering is real. We could probably do something that’s a little junky and get away with it, but that’s not the way Polar historically likes to roll, so when we do something we make sure the science is really dead on.
“How companies like Fitbit, Garmin or Polar or Apple navigate their way through when you start tip-toeing into medical health and predictive issues, it’s very interesting, there’s huge potential there.”
But as Fowler rightly points out, there are risks involved with rushing into these new technologies, the biggest being around educating users on how to interpret the data. “When you start getting into things that are tiptoeing up against being in the medical community and that could be used as predictive of an issue, like from a medical perspective as opposed to an athletic performance perspective, you’ve got to be really careful because people might easily over-interpret by saying, as long as my watch says I’m ok, I’m ok. Which may not actually be the case.
“The very serious devil is definitely in the details.”
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