Tracking Highlights from CES 1/16/13

The Year of the Health Gadget is still in full force, though we’re only two weeks into the year. Most people agree that 2013 is going to be another huge year for health tracking and monitoring, especially in terms of the number of gadgets on the market, and CES last week showcased most of the big players and offerings we’re going to see.

I wasn’t at CES, but I read lots of the coverage and was impressed at how well the big publishers like CNN did covering the event from a digital health angle. The biggest announcements and products in activity tracking, some of which I liked and some I didn’t, are below. I left out the ones I didn’t think were worth mentioning.

I’m a convert to activity trackers thanks to my Nike FuelBand. One of my resolutions for the new year was to beat my goal of 5,000 Fuel points every day. I’m on a 29-day streak and find that I actually enjoy it. I’m internally motivated to do it. It’s not some big data analytics company analyzing me to make recommendations or display my data in a beautiful way. It’s not really social pressure, as I find I don’t currently have that much competition amongst my Nike+ friends. My issues with big-data + mHealth saving our health system are for another post.

The point is that I do love tracking my activity. I also know what features make a good activity tracker for me, my wife, and my friends. It has to be worn and has to be durable. I can’t do things that clip on and I’m not all together thrilled about mini devices that snap or fit into wristbands, belts, or shoes. It has to be odorless. It needs to display my progress without syncing to an app or computer. A basic status indicator probably enough. I’m not into sleep tracking — I’ve tried it and just didn’t get much from it.


The biggest news in the activity tracker area was probably Fitbit. The new Flex wrist-worn activity tracker seems well designed, is cheaper at $99, than the other two well-known players (Nike and Jawbone), and Fitbit is an old man hag compared to most of the young companies in the health tracking space. As far as I can tell, the Flex meets my official and well-validated requirements for an activity tracker.


The dark horse in the race for activity tracker supremacy is probably Fitbug. I hadn’t heard of it until I read the CNN article. The Fitbit Orb isn’t exactly a wrist-worn device. It’s actually a very small circular tracker that fits into a wristband that makes it seem much like the Flex, FuelBand, and Up, though not really as trendy or stylish.

What differentiates the Orb — and what I think really makes it interesting in the market — is the price point of $50. I realize the Fitbit Zip is only $59, but I can’t stand the design of it and really hope it gets an overhaul. Either way, $50 is a great price for something that functions much like the other more expensive trackers. The big question I have is whether price is what is holding people back from tracking activity. I think probably not, but it might be the case when a company or organization is considering a group buy. It also might be that Fitbug will do well with those that might have otherwise gotten a Flex but want something a little cheaper.

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Out of the wrist-worn category but getting a lot of press is Withings and its new activity tracker. The device is tiny and does a couple of cool things that others don’t. It’s uses a touch screen for navigation. This is similar but smaller and less colorful than the Striive. It’s interesting to provide the touch screen, which I have to assume raises the cost, because Withings has what I consider to be the nicest mobile app of the group, or at least tied with Jawbone. When it comes to devices like this, I think simpler is better and more durable.

The coolest thing about the Withings tracker is that you can press on the back with your fingers to get your heart rate. You could always count your pulse with a watch, but this does add something to the device to make it different than the others. Despite the monitor and touch screen, I think this will probably be a flop for Withings.


The other device I liked, though it isn’t’ a worn tracker like the others above, is the GeoPalz. I think of it a little like Zamzee because it is designed for kids. The device powers associated virtual games. I love the idea of using trackers with kids to get them thinking about exercise. My wife and I both wear FuelBands and our kids are always asking us if we’ve hit our goals and are excited to earn points by running around or dancing to Just Dance Disney on the Wii. Just as employer wellness plans target lifestyle and ongoing change, so too could school programs use these devices to make physical activity ongoing instead of 45 minutes a day in PE (best case). I think kids would lose the GeoPalz pretty easily, but it’s a good concept and great price at $35.

Speaking of activity tracker popularity, has anybody been in an Apple Store recently and seen the huge selection of trackers? I’d seen products from Withings and iHealth there before, but was surprised by the amount of space eaten up by products from Nike, Adidas, Jawbone, Lark, and a few others. Fitbit, and I think a few others, sell their stuff at Best Buy.

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Another bucket of trackers, which I consider to be more health trackers and not activity trackers, include devices from companies like Basis, BodyMedia, Salutron, and Pebble. In addition to activity, these devices measure heart rate and temperature. I still can’t imagine any of these getting too popular, but hey, Pebble was the biggest success story on Kickstarter, so maybe I just don’t get the appeal. The oversized watch look that Pebble and Basis have isn’t really appealing to me and my boney wrists. Maybe you get used to it over time. The BodyMedia armband is just overkill. I’m sure wearing them would open my eyes to a whole new world of data about myself, but I’m not ready to make the leap. I’m betting there are enough people who will that these companies will do well.

A couple of other health-related announcements at CES included connected pulse oximeters, connected medication dispensers, the official launch of the smart toothbrush Beam Brush, and a product that fascinates me, the HAPIfork.

The smart fork is designed to tell you, by way of vibrating or triggering a message on your phone, to slow down if you’re eating too fast. The company is selling this as a way to lose weight because by slowing down, people realize they’re full and stop eating sooner than if they were eating fast. I know I eat way too fast, but I want this fork for my kids who have a knack for dragging out meals by eating too slow. If this could vibrate to remind them to take a bite that would be much better than me having to remember to tell them. I don’t think the HAPIfork works like that, but that’s what I’d want.

What did you see at CES that impressed you or that you think we’ll be talking about for a while?


Travis Good is an MD/MBA involved with health IT startups. More about me.

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