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Why Fitbit calls its newest wearable a ‘health smartwatch’

Not yet part of Google, Fitbit has a watch that checks for warning signs you’re at risk for a stroke, senses if you’re stressed, and takes your temperature.

Why Fitbit calls its newest wearable a ‘health smartwatch’
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The last time Fitbit had any really big news was last November, when it agreed to become part of Google in a $2.1 billion deal. More than nine months later, the planned transaction is still undergoing scrutiny by regulators. Along with privacy advocates, they’re concerned about what Google might do with the data Fitbit collects about users of its wearables.

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But Fitbit, still an independent company, isn’t in a holding pattern. It just announced the Fitbit Sense, an all-new smartwatch that will arrive in late September along with another new smartwatch (the Fitbit Versa 3) and tracker (the Fitbit Inspire 2) that update existing products in the lineup.

Given Fitbit’s history—it established the fitness-tracker category a dozen years ago—it’s no shocker that the Sense focuses on healthy living as its core reason for being, even more than the Apple Watch does nowadays. But during Fitbit’s virtual press conference for journalists—with Fitbit executives walking through the announcements in front of a simulated balmy tropical-island background, complete with soothing wave sound effects—the company tried to stake out ground for the $329 Sense as the first product in a new category: the “health smartwatch.”

That claim is based on the device’s profusion of sensors and the software that takes advantage of them. The Sense builds on the heart-related functionality of previous Fitbits with a new ECG app—to be available once it’s passed FDA review—that lets you check for signs of atrial fibrillation, a leading cause of strokes, by touching the watch’s corners for 30 seconds. You’ll be able to download an ECG report to share with your doctor. (Apple has also been working on turning its Watch into a tool for detecting AFib.)

In addition,  an improved version of Fitbit’s heart-rate PurePulse sensor and software will monitor your heart rate continuously and notify you if it finds it to be abnormally high or low.

For us as a business, it’s not just about the devices, but it’s also about the experience beyond the device.”

Fitbit CEO James Park
Also new: An EDA (Electrodermal Activity) app that’s designed to detect stress. Basically, it’s a sweaty-hands detector—press your palm to the watch’s surface and it takes a reading. Coupled with factors such as your own self-assessment of your emotional state and the data the watch collects about your sleep patterns, Fitbit will calculate a Stress Management Score and provide advice for de-stressing if appropriate.

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Sense is also the first Fitbit device with a built-in skin temperature monitor. It’s designed to help detect a fever or other issues by collecting trends on your temperature when you sleep, rather than as a one-time measurement.

Squeezing all this new sensing ability into a watch that’s pleasing in size—the Sense looks like a close cousin of the Versa line—and promises “6+” days of battery life was a challenge. Fitbit VP of research Shelten Yuen says that the company pulled it off through techniques such as using the same electrodes for both ECG and EDA readings: “The electronics are different between the two systems, but they share the same components on the top surface. And that way, you don’t have 10 different areas to touch on the surface of the watch . . . I think it’s a very elegant and ergonomic solution to trying to integrate all this into one package.”

For all the new hardware engineering the Sense required, “probably two-thirds of the work goes into the software,” says Fitbit cofounder and CEO James Park. “Whether it’s data collection, the algorithms that go into interpreting the raw data, or visual visualization of the content.” And as devices such as the Sense are able to gather new information about users’ health, they can power features reserved for the $10/month Fitbit Premium service. (The company recently reported that it signed up 500,000 paying Premium users in the first year.)

That means that over time, better hardware might actually help Fitbit grow less dependent on finding new customers for its gadgets and convincing old ones to upgrade to its latest versions. “For us as a business, too, it’s not just about the devices, but it’s also about the experience beyond the device,” says Park.

How about Fitbit’s plan to become part of Google once it’s cleared every remaining regulatory hurdle? Park told me that he couldn’t dig into details on the merger. But he said that the trajectory exemplified by the Sense’s new health features is one of the things that got Google interested in owning Fitbit in the first place. “I’m personally excited, because I think the combination is going to benefit consumers,” he says. “There’s a lot that we can collectively do together.” Now all the two companies need to do is finish making that case to the regulatory powers that be, in an era of ever-increasing skepticism about tech mergers.

About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.

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