January 13, 2016

LAS VEGAS — Why did a green crocodile belt with a gold-plated buckle make its debut here at the Consumer Technology Association 2016 conference, better known for buzzing drones and virtual reality headsets?

The answer is inside the buckle. Hidden from view are sensors and circuitry for measuring the wearer's steps, calories burned, and distance traveled, and transmitting that information to a smartphone app. There is also a safety feature. Three taps on the buckle transmit an SOS to a loved one — a handy feature for an elderly person who takes a tumble, or anyone in an emergency.

The belt from WiseWear is just one example of health and fitness wearables presented at the Digital Health Summit that are aimed at people who want something dressier than a rubbery wristband to wear to the office or a cocktail lounge. At the Fitbit display, conference goers sized up the brand new Fitbit Blaze, a sleek watch that can be attached to elastomer, leather, or stainless steel bands, depending on the occasion. And a company called Misfit introduced the Ray, a brushed aluminum cylinder in carbon black or rose gold that can be worn on a leather wristband or hung on a chain.

If the wearable is more wearable, the thinking goes, fitness monitoring is longer and stronger.

"One of the first things we learned in this industry is that fitness is personal, and if something isn't your style, you won't wear it," James Park, founder and chief executive officer of Fitbit, said in a news release.

During a panel discussion on wearables at the symposium, Gerald Wilmink, PhD, founder and chief executive officer of WiseWear, said that his goal "was to make it so beautiful that people would wear it even if there were no electronics inside."

That is important, given the "high abandonment rate of technology," said Dr Wilmink, a biomedical engineer who used to conduct research at the Department of Defense.

"Lose the Screen, Not the Moment"

WiseWear bracelet

Dr Wilmink said he started WiseWear in 2013 after his grandfather Dominic fell in his home, broke his hip, and lay on the floor for an hour without anyone knowing. He died a short time later.

He originally set out to create hearing aids that would identify seniors at risk of falling. Although he hasn't yet achieved that goal, his initial research showed him how to transmit a Bluetooth signal through metal to reach a smartphone. That led to his first WiseWear products: a line of chic metal bracelets for women that collect the same biometric data as his men's belts. They're set to go on sale in Bloomingdale stores next month. WiseWear plans to follow-up with new designs from 94-year-old fashion icon Iris Apfel.

Like the belts, WiseWear bracelets have no screens. "Lose the screen, not the moment," Dr Wilmink said.

At $395, WiseWear bracelets cost more than rival fashion wearables (the price for the belt has not yet been announced). Fitbit charges $330 for its Blaze fitness watch with a steel-link band. Misfit's minimalist Ray on a leather band goes for $120. Misfit's most expensive wearable, the Swarovski Vio pendant crystal, costs $249.

 
The future is wearables that integrate seamlessly with electronic health records.
 

However the market shakes out, high-end wearables illustrate how health and fitness monitoring is becoming more ubiquitous in people's lives through artful disguise. It bodes well for patient care as wearables capture medical data to share with clinicians, said David Katz, MD, MPH, director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center in New Haven, Connecticut, during the panel discussion.

"The future is wearables that integrate seamlessly with electronic health records," said Dr Katz. "You can immediately populate the record with information that's always current."

"The same elegant device you wear around your wrist is empowering the entire [clinical] team, and rallying them around better health," he added.

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