My activity tracking ecosystem

After I wrote my post on Monday about the Fitbit Charge HR, Dan Delaney (@Dan_Delaney) and Gregg Robertson (@GreggRobertson5) both tweeted me to say “try MyFitnessPal“. Well, after putting aside the really cringeworthy name (although “MyNetDiary” is not any better), I thought I’d give it a try and, so far, the experience has been really positive.

Not only does MyFitnessPal seem to have a decent UK food database (albeit one that could do with some tidying up for consistency in naming – although that’s probably just my pedantry again) but the app is pretty good (just as good as the MyNetDiary app I paid money for…) and, more importantly, the ecosystem of connected apps is pretty good (Strava and Fitbit are both there, which is what I need – but many more besides). It’s growing too; only yesterday Endomondo emailed to say they were joining the “Under Armour Connected Fitness suite”, which includes MyFitnessPal.  The only slight downside (and it’s really not an issue when I think about the data that I need to keep, long term), is that MyFitnessPal bundles up each meal into a summary when it passes it to Fitbit:

So, this is what my activity tracking ecosystem looks like now:

Ultimately, I only have to enter or capture each item of information once (exercise via Strava unless automatically captured on my Garmin Edge 810 cycle computer; food/drink/weight via MyFitnessPal; daily activity/calorie burn automatically from my Fitbit Charge HR) and it flows into Fitbit and onwards each day to Microsoft HealthVault.

(Just over) a week with the Fitbit Charge HR

Over the last couple of months I’ve attended a couple of British Computer Society (BCS) meetings on the “Internet of Everything”. Looking at the speaker’s activity band got me thinking about “the quantified self”. Just as, when I’m cycling or running, I like to track my activities and see how I’ve done compared with others, this year I decided to buy myself a fitness tracker. I’ve worn pedometers before (when taking part in the Global Corporate Challenge) but with the current (and upcoming) range of activity bands/watches, my device of choice is a Fitbit Charge HR.

Why the Fitbit Charge HR? Well, I’d seen the Charge and it looks good – discrete, but functional – and the additional £20 for heart rate readings sounded interesting (and should lead to more accurate calorie counting).  There are Apple and Microsoft watches on the way but I’ve been burned far to many times buying a first generation product (iPad, Nokia Lumia 800) and Fitbit have been working in this market for a while now – their trackers are pretty well established. I was also seeing some good reviews on the Charge including this one from Michael d’Estries (@michaeldestries).

Setup

The setup was simple – the product packaging directed me to a website to download and install the software on a PC (or Mac in my case), together with a dongle after which the band updated itself and continued to sync. There’s also an app on my phone that communicates via Bluetooth (I use this for call notifications and synchronisation). I’m not sure what technology the dongle uses (ANT+ perhaps?) but it’s certainly not the Mac’s built-in Bluetooth stack.  I also need to work out why, since I paired the band with the app on my phone, the Mac no longer sees it as present but that’s not stopping me from using it so can wait a while.

Charging

Next up was charging the battery. It had some power out of the box but needed charging soon after (unsurprisingly).  Fitbit’s claimed battery life is 5 days but I’d say it’s nearer to 2-3. Actually, I don’t let it run down that far – I generally charge daily – and I started off by charging whilst taking a shower, etc. as any steps taken during the period are probably balanced out by steps recorded as a result of movement during sleep.  Unfortunately, putting it on charge when I woke (and before it had registered much activity confused the sleep tracking (it thought I was still asleep!) so I’ve since started to charge it whilst sitting at my desk, working at a PC.  It really does seems like this would be one device that really would benefit from wireless charging!  Added to that, the proprietary connector locks on well but I can’t help thinking it’s another way to make money (replacing lost/broken cables) and micro USB would do the job just as well?

Monitoring steps, hear trate and sleep

Importantly, the step count seems reasonably accurate. There are some phantom steps when driving/otherwise moving my wrist but the Charge HR basically seems to keep time with walking (goodness knows how as it’s nothing to do with how I swing my arms or not!).  Incidentally, you can’t delete/edit the recorded steps/floors data so it’s worth logging driving as an activity (take a note of the start and finish times) to negate the entries as it’s somewhat disconcerting to be notified that you reached your step target whilst driving along the motorway!  Unfortunately, although recording an activity trues up the step count and other metrics, any badges earned remain on your profile.

I’ve yet to check the heart rate monitoring compared with the Garmin chest band that I wear on my longer bike rides – it seems a little low to me but maybe a bike ride is more exerting than I think!  And on the subject of exertion, I was amused to see that, one evening, after visiting my local pub, the walk back up the hill counted as both active minutes (raised heart rate) and towards the number of stairs climbed (due to the elevation)!  Stair climbing (along with distance walked, when many of the steps are around the home/office) seems a bit of a gimmick but still another metric to compare. It’s not 100% accurate, because Fitbit measures a flight of stairs as 10′ elevation (based on atmospheric pressure) – modern homes may be less than this, and commercial buildings more – but it’s there or thereabouts.

Sleep tracking is another reason I was interested in wearing a band, which is also the reason I can’t charge at night (as I do my phones). I’m not sure exactly how this works (it tracks time in bed, restlessness, and time awake) but I’m pretty sure “time reading a book before going to sleep” gets recorded as sleep (perhaps the low heart rate?), as does “lying in bed being lazy (a lie in)”. As mentioned previously, so does taking off my watch and pugging it in to charge after sleep as the software only seems to end the sleep when I’m active – and therefore starting to charge it whilst I’m still in bed extends the sleep time!

Some niggles

There are some minor niggles to watch for:

  • The Charge HR has a proper strap buckle (the Charge has a different clasp) and it can be tricky to get the correct adjustment (not too tight, not too loose for HR monitoring); however I haven’t worn a watch for many years so it may just be me getting used to having something on my wrist again.  More significantly, the strap is quite short (even the large version). Mine only has about another centimetre of expansion and, whilst I’m a stocky guy, I’m not huge – I’m sure there are others with bigger wrists than mine.
  • The watch face appears to be plastic rather than glass and I was disappointed to see it had scratched after a few days of use, although I was shown a Microsoft Band a few days ago and that was clearly scratched (on a much larger screen). I guess I’ve been spoiled by glass smartphone screens and expect the same from all devices…
  • If you’re in the UK, Fitbit’s food record database is terrible. So far the only items recognised by the barcode scanner in the app have been from Costco (i.e. American products) and I’ve used other apps that do a much better job for this. Also, the Fitbit food tracker can’t create recipes (i.e. add a bunch of ingredients, save as a recipe with x portions, then eat y portions). After a few days, my common food items have mostly been added manually (which has taken quite a lot of time) but there’s still the issue of tracking food when eating out. Maybe it’s pedantic but it does seem to me to have little value in accurately tracking calories burned if I don’t accurately track calories eaten…
  • As with driving, when logging activities (exercise), be ready for some inaccuracy as (unless logged as a walk/run, etc. via the Fitbit app) because manually-logged activities can be recorded down to the second on duration but only to the minute on start/end times! So, if I take an activity from Strava (for example) that started at 16:39 and lasted 18m 11s… the heart rate graphs don’t quite match up. As you can’t edit an activity (only delete and re-record), it can take some trial and error to record it accurately.

App ecosystem

In general, activity tracking would actually be greatly improved if there was broader integration between apps (e.g. Strava-Fitbit or Garmin-Fitbit). There is an ecosystem of Fitbit-aware apps but we’re a long way from a universal health tracking app ecosystem. Added to that, the need for premium versions of each app, with subscriptions in order to integrate (e.g. MyNetDiary-Fitbit) could get expensive.  I’m hopeful that Apple, Microsoft et al will make great strides in this area (and I’ve linked my Fitbit account to Microsoft HealthVault) and it’s certainly something to watch over the next couple of years.

Conclusion

So, it seems that health tracking is useful, but I need to modify the way I work to deal with the Fitbit Charge HR’s shortcomings re: charging, sleep monitoring, food diaries, etc. I’m still really pleased with mine (and don’t think any other device would be any better, right now) but it’s not quite the put-it-on-and-ignore-it sensor I’d hoped to accurately quantify myself with! Maybe my expectations were just a little too high…

I bought my Fitbit Charge HR Heart Rate and Activity Wristband from Amazon UK.

Some thoughts on wearable tech…

Almost a year ago, I wrote a great blog post about the rise of wearable technology. I know it was great, possibly my best ever, and it was inspired by some thoughts on the journey to work, hurriedly scribbled on a piece of paper when I got to the office, waiting to be fleshed out with research and published. Except you won’t find it anywhere, because I accidentally put the scrap of paper into the confidential waste bin…

Wearable hype

Fast forward to January 2014 and it seems that wearable tech is at the peak of the hype curve. I haven’t actually checked the analyst reports – it’s just an observation based on the tech news that’s reached me of late, particularly since CES.

So, whether it’s personal health and fitness, location tracking, lifeblogging, information on the move – or something else we haven’t thought of yet – wearable seems to be the first buzzword of 2014. But the key to making it successful is an ecosystem for devices to work together. My data is only useful when combined with other data – islands of Fitbit, Nike fuel band, Google Glass (bad example – we’ll come back to that in a moment) and other data sources are really just of personal interest/vanity (a bit like me publishing my exercise activities on Facebook) until they are combined to actually mean something. Whilst Cisco’s vision of a connected world sounds a little too Orwellian for me, there is definitely something there – could wearable tech, combined other machine to machine (M2M) communications (e.g. home automation) provide enough benefits to make us all sign up?

That’s where we come to Google. The current incarnation of Google Glass may be a bit clunky, but it will improve. Google’s acquisition of Nest is surely intended to provide a foothold in home M2M communications. Most people seem increasingly accepting of the ad agency’s services*, being prepared to exchange our personal data for “free” services that are of value. Google is about data. Vast amounts of it – and we’re generating more and more!

The personal communications hub

So what’s at the centre of all of this tech – surely something is needed to act as a broker, to combine data feeds and act as a personal communications hub in an ever-connected world? Ah yes, communications hub – that will be our smartphones then. Forget about where we will put the wearable clothing. As the technology develops the sensors become less obtrusive and less noticable.

 

The smartphone, meanwhile, remains as the voice, video, and data device that we carry about our person at all times. Increasingly powerful, with better battery life and containing a plethora of sensors, it can interact with others about our person and provide the conduit for our personal data streams – to and from the ‘net. Google is well placed with its online services, Android operating system, and recent steps into the wearable tech and M2M marketplaces (indeed, I’d argue that wearables are just one part of a much wider M2M market but it will be difficult to separate them soon). The question is, in this “post-PC” world, what are Apple and Microsoft doing to follow? An Apple iWatch has been rumoured for years – and I’m sure it will offer a vastly improved experience compared with Samsung’s Galaxy Gear but for now it’s just vapourware (or is that vapourwear?). Microsoft had the idea of building connected screens for its devices a few years ago but they just didn’t take off. Google’s Glass is the closest anyone has come to something that might just be acceptable in the marketplace but I firmly beleive that the watch/glasses/whatever-the-wearable-interface-is is simply that – an interface – something to use instead of pulling our smartphones out of our pocket.

One thing’s for sure, as wearables and M2M comms become more and more established, we’ll start to see some amazing uses for technology – as long as the privacy concerns can be overcome. It’s a bit too soon to say who will dominate, but short of a new entrant taking the market by storm, or an industry-wide federation of companies creating an ecosystem for smart devices, my money is on Google.

Random thoughts

This is certainly not my best ever blog post – perhaps it’s little more than a jumbled collection of thoughts – but at least I got something on the web this time (unlike the thoughts I had on virtual currencies in 2011, that never got further than an item on the “to do” list).  Talking of random thoughts, that reminds me… somewhere I have a t-shirt with built in light-up graphic equaliser – is that an example of mid-2000s wearable tech?

* I believe that most of the Google’s revenues still come from search, but clearly not in the UK or else there would be corporation taxes to pay.