It’s cool. It’s convenient. And it’s about to take over the world. First stop? Your body, of course. Welcome to wearable technology


My wife recently bought a pedometer for herself. It’s small, discreet (about half the size of my uncle’s pager that he used in the days before cellphones) and far more useful than I could ever imagine.

The pedometer tracks body movement and records every step she takes during the day. At the end of each week she plugs it into our home PC and uploads the data. That information is then shared between Fitbit (the pedometer manufacturer) and Discovery Health (our medical aid). Based on the distance my wife walks, our family then gets extra Vitality points and I pay less in premiums. Genius.

It’s a simple tool. In fact, your smartphone probably has the same capabilities, even if you don’t ever use them. And this is just one good example of the next big wave in technology: wearable technology.

All the cool kids are using it. Or at least, 71% of respondents aged 16 to 24 say they’ve either used some form of this technology or are keen to do so in future, according to a 2014 GlobalWebIndex survey. The results skew relatively towards young people and males: 69% of men expressed an interest in wearable technology compared to 56% of women.

It’s easy to dismiss surveys such as these. After all, respondents in this age category would likely show similarly high levels of interest in free beer or fast cars. Increasingly, however, market researchers are finding the same result: consumers want the new functionality offered by wearable technology.

Accenture’s Digital Consumer Tech Survey 2014 found that, across the countries surveyed (which included SA, India, Australia, Canada, the UK and US), almost half of the respondents expressed interest in buying a smart watch, while more than 40% said they would be interested in wearable eyeglasses. ‘This is remarkable because the products are, for the most part, not commercially available,’ the report states.

The survey defined wearable technology as a smart watch, smart wristband or Google Glass. However, you could easily expand that list to include a GoPro camera, CladLight jacket, mobile device or app that can monitor and check your vital signs. Pay special attention to that last example.

The very nature of these devices and applications – and their intimate relationship with the wearer’s body – means this type of technology is finding its earliest adaptors in the healthcare space.

In December 2014, PwC’s Health Research Institute (HRI) published its annual report on the top 10 projected health industry issues for the coming year in the US. It identified ‘do-it-yourself healthcare’ as the top healthcare trend for 2015.

‘US consumers and physicians are ready to embrace a dramatic expansion of the person medical kit in 2015, thanks to technological innovation, the public’s craving for convenience and a push to deliver lower-care cost,’ the report states.

‘Technology companies are building intuitive mobile medical devices and apps that monitor vital signs, analyse blood and urine, track medication adherence and more.’ In this case, ‘more’ could conceivably cover anything from a wearable heart-rate monitors to pedometers. SA medical scheme Bestmed is already considering the potential of this form of technology as a preventative care and wellness value-add.

‘We are currently looking at a number of funding models and researching the potential benefit of wearables to our members,’ says Chris Luyt, the company’s marketing executive. ‘We are, however, excited about the early indications, and are working through all the considerations, like privacy of information control and hosting of daily information, to name but a few. I personally view this as a significant trend in modern healthcare, which I don’t think the industry can ignore.’

025_Tech PQ

‘We are currently looking at a number of funding models and researching the potential benefit of wearables’


The early signs show that the industry is ready to embrace wearable mobile technology. The HRI survey findings suggest that clinicians may be more open to using these tools than consumers. ‘One-fifth of consumers said they would use a home urinalysis device,’ the survey found. ‘But nearly half of physicians said they would use data from such a device to prescribe medication or decide whether a patient should be seen.’

Consumers, however, are proving to be slower on the uptake. In a separate 2014 report on health wearables, the HRI found that, based on a survey of 1 000 US consumers, only one in five adults in the US actually owns a wearable – and only one in 10 uses it every day. The report quoted Ian Clark, CEO of biotech company Genentech, as calling health wearables ‘a bit trivial right now’.

As Clark told an audience of health-wearables entrepreneurs at the 2014 Rock Health Innovation Summit in San Francisco: ‘I don’t doubt that the wearable piece is going to be a productive business model for people. I just don’t know whether it’s going to bend the curve in terms of health outcomes.’

Either way, it’s probably too early to tell. As Ivo Stivoric, vice-president of research and development at wearables company Jawbone, recently told a PwC focus group in New York City: ‘This is like the early days of the mobile phone, when phones were bricks. We are in the early stages.’

The signs show that the impact of wearable technology won’t be limited to healthcare only, but related industries too – including insurance. In an admittedly small survey of 200 US insurance company executives, published in May by manage-ment consultancy Accenture, 63% of respondents said that they believed wearables would be widely adopted by the insurance industry (and not only health insurance) within the next two years.

A further 31% said their firms are already using wearables to engage with customers, staff and partners.

025_Tech INF

‘While insurers have traditionally based their underwriting and pricing processes on a limited view of certain customer variables, emerging technologies such as wearables and other connected devices can help insurers break from their traditional business models and provide outcome-based services for their customers,’ says Accenture’s senior MD for global insurance practice, John Cusano.

‘For instance, one leading insurer recently announced that it will provide new policy holders with a free fitness band to track their health progress – and then reward their healthy living with a reduction in life insurance premiums.’

If that sounds a lot like what’s happening with my wife’s pedometer, it’s no coincidence. Cusano was likely referring to John Hancock insurance, whose incentive programme was set up in partnership with the Vitality Group, Discovery Health’s US subsidiary.

For now, the focus is on wearable technology as it applies to healthcare, or as it emerges as something for trendy youth to try out. But for Lise Hagen, research manager of software and IT services Africa at the International Data Corporation, it could be so much more. ‘Wearable technology is generally seen as a first-world luxury or leisure fad,’ she says.

‘However, if it addresses relevant, real-life challenges, wearable technology can have a positive impact on African challenges as well. For instance, in order to reduce road accidents involving motorcyclists, a Kenyan start-up called CladLight developed a jacket for motorcycle riders – in essence, a wearable turning signal.’

CladLight – it’s worth pointing out – recently received KSh1 million (about R129 000) in seed funding to help tweak the design of their jackets. Charles Muchene, the company’s CEO, says that they developed the tech to improve the visibility of bicycle riders. Hagen describes it as a solution ‘for Africans, by Africans. As with any other technology, wearable technology can succeed if it addresses a market need, at a reasonable price point. However, the intimacy of wearable technology demands robust user-experience testing’.

You may, then, have to wait a while before you can see the world through Google Glass. In the meantime, you could just strap on a pedometer.

By Will Sinclair
Image: Mr.Xerty © www.nomastaprod.com