If you hadn't noticed, heart rate monitors are a big deal in wearable tech. The Apple Watch Series 2 has one. Pretty much every Fitbit has one. And you ain't nothing in the wearable tech game if you don't have a little flashing light underneath that checks the blood as it throbs through your veins.
So why are heart rate monitors trending this week? Well, it seems that everyone's noticed they're a bit crap.
Why is everyone so hung up by heart rate?
Good question. Well, your heart's pretty important, for living, y'know. So given the technology exists for fitness trackers and smartwatches to non-invasively read bpm (that's medical speak for NOT sticking anything inside you), the current theory says they should. Because that way, wearable devices can tell you stuff about yourself.
Isn't it just for workout geeks?
Fitness is the big obvious benefit. Athletes will train by heart rate, ensuring that workouts and performed at the right intensity – and that's filtered down onto sports watches. You can use it to great effect – like I did in my heart rate training diary. But heart rate can offer more than that. First, it can give a more accurate report of the calories you burned walking to work. Second, it can track the improvement in your fitness over time, using your resting heart rate.
Resting what now?
Resting heart rate is the speed of your heart when you're sat down doing sweet FA. Tour De France winner Bradley Wiggins' RHR is around 30. Someone who's morbidly obese and about to expire could be as high as 100. You get the picture. We're all somewhere on that scale and – generally – the lower you can get it the better.
OK so I already bought a Fitbit, big deal…
That's great, and there's loads of ways you can use it effectively. The resting heart rate stuff is more than accurate and means you can see improvement as you get in shape. The problem is that – across the board of the wearable tech market – the current tech isn't all that.
What's up with it?
Well, the wrist has been problematic for years. It moves around, which creates digital noise. The wrist flexes, hardening the skin and making a reading harder to take. It's an absolute nightmare. In an interview we did with Valencell, who makes heart rate readers, Dr. Steven LeBoeuf, the company's president said: "The wrist is about the worst place on the body to get an accurate measurement."
So where shall I stick this heart rate tracker now?
Well, that's up for debate. Devices like the Jabra Sport Pulse go for the ear, to good effect. And lots of new devices, including two announced this week in the HeartIn bpm monitoring shirt that integrates sensors against the torso, ShapeHeart arm band and the Supa Powered Bra that hides a small sensor against the chest. Moov Sweat HR goes for the head, and of course, there's the old trusted chest strap, too.
So wrist trackers are crap then?
Well, they don't have the best rep. And there's limitations, especially when you start getting into HIIT style workouts, which is all the rage now. But there are massive upsides. The wrist is a totally normal, comfortable place to have a heart rate monitor – it's always there when you need it, you can see your heart rate, which is sort of essential if you're using it to train. Wearing a watch doesn't make you look like a total arse. Also, we don't want to be laden with loads of devices when we're working out. A watch here and a heart rate tracker there, it's less comfortable, more expensive and, crucially less accessible for normal people.
Will I actually ever have a watch that's accurate?
Well, they're coming. We've given TomTom's Adventurer and the Spark 3 a good bill of health in heart rate performance, and the new Garmin Forerunner 935 makes a good step forward. And there's consensus through the industry that wrist tech will come good. Pessimist Dr. Steven LeBoeuf (remember, the Valancell guy) said:
"As far as making the wrist bulletproof for heart rate, is it possible? Yes. We have something where we can control the pressure in the heart rate monitor device. Another way to do it is through sophisticated signal extracting technology."
You're a sophisticated signal technology
LeBouef expects that we'll see dumber heart rate trackers that do a better job of tracking BPM, but passing it off to other devices to do the hard work, perhaps as soon as 2018. That could, however, mean a return to carrying your smartphone when you're working out.
"I do expect you'll see in 2018, companies start to market almost like a Livestrong band, because it is lightweight and has less complications. I call it an idiot band, it's not really smart, it's just collecting the data and sending it to a device to do all the data crunching and you won't have to think about charging it."
So 2018 is the year of the 'idiot band'. You heard it here first.