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Wearable technology cannot be trusted

Column A 135 mile trek across the Outer Hebrides showed it isn't ready yet
Fri Jun 27 2014, 14:54

Lee Bell column portrait IT'S THE IDEA of letting technology take the worry out of staying fit that is perhaps to blame for the recent explosion in wearable devices.

It seems that almost everyone with a smartphone is obsessed with calorie counting and step measuring technology lately, especially fitness trackers, which consumers trust to give them accurate readings during walks, runs, cycles and even sleeps now. It's likely due to the desirability to shift the onus of health tracking to a device and worry less about keeping tabs on our fitness because there's something attached to our wrists constantly collecting data.

But is the idea of shifting the collection of such sensitive and important personal information about our health to a device a dangerous thing? Are we relying too heavily on these now very accessible devices to provide accurate statistics on our health and fitness? It's likely that we are getting carried away with the idea of wearables and their ability to track our health, so much so that we are failing to track the wearables themselves, and whether they are doing their job properly.

My views on this topic matured during a charity hike across the length of the Outer Hebrides last week (you can still donate if you wish!); an event organised by hardware outfit Acer, which invited a bunch of technology journalists to put the firm's "explore beyond limits" tagline to the test, quite literally.

Representing The INQUIRER, I was joined by 14 other members of the UK technology press to walk, cycle and kayak 135 miles across the length of the Scottish islands in an attempt to raise funds for Mountain Rescue England and Wales.

Lee on his trec across the Outer Hebrides with Acer

As you'd expect from a horde of technology professionals, each of us turned up at the airport to begin the journey to the Hebrides prepped with all the latest in wearable tech. Almost every prominent wearable device you can think of dangled from the wrist or rucksack of each of us, eager to present the information we expected of them: dedicated and accurate fitness and location data of the long journey upon which we were about to embark. For most of us, we had already tried and tested the gadgets in individual reviews for our respective publications, so we trusted that they worked as promised.

An example of some of the wearables present on the trek were the Galaxy Gear Fit, Fitbit Flex, Nike Fuelband, Jawbone Up24, Galaxy Gear 2 Neo and the Pebble watch.

I had decided not to complete the trek with a wearable, but was tracking the same activities as my peers with the Moves app, a free application available on both iOS and Android that makes use of the accelerometer and GPS functions of a smartphone to collect information. I had found that this was a very reliable way of tracking my own steps and calorie burns when travelling locally between my home and office.

But what struck and worried me while completing the 135 miles of walking, cycling and kayaking were the anomalies between each of our wearable devices. Each and every one of the them depended on the same type of technology to present readings to their respective users, and what I found surprising was that none of them told the same story. On our walk we compared readings from our wearables and fitness tracking applications to find that, most of the time, not one of them showed the same readings.

Trekking across the Outer Hebrides with Acer

For example, two hours into a walk across the Isle of Harris, none of us were aware exactly how far we'd come and upon checking our fitness trackers, found that while one measured the distance travelled as 5.5 miles, another said seven miles and another said nine! These were by no means minor inaccuracies, they were gross imprecisions that left us frustrated and bemused. The best thing was, this wasn't just in areas where we were struggling to find a decent data connection or signal, this happened often during walks across parts of the islands where 3G reception was strong and reliable. So it's not like we could make an excuse for the bands we had worn for most of the trek that they were inaccurate because they weren't connected to the internet.

If we'd relied solely on wearables to get us from A to B, and not had a representative guiding us on our way, we could have made some serious mistakes. It's a good thing we weren't orienteering.

Surprisingly, out of all the wearables I saw being used on the trip, the Moves app I had used seem to present the most accurate readings, as it correlated with the distances travelled on our itinerary. Checking this data with another journalist using Moves on the walk, we found that both apps had pretty much identical readings.

The results of the moves app after two days of the trek

So, now that we've hung up our grubby walking boots and soaked the abundance of blisters that cover our feet, we can say that we've learned that the charity hike was not just exerting both mentally and physically - as well a good chance to raise funds for a worthy cause, of course - but it was an eye opener for the industry in which we work.

What we'd discovered is that wearable technology, which we had put our trust in and believed would give us nearly accurate readings, was almost as clueless as we were. It's almost funny that a free app gave us the most accurate readings. This leads me to suggest that we should perhaps be more critical of the tracking devices we have tied to our limbs, and question whether wearable fitness tracking devices are really worth investing in. It seems that they just aren't ready yet. µ


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