Smartwatches promised to make us healthier, and they finally might

Smartwatch
Smartwatch

It’s been a big week for smartwatches. Big month, really. On Wednesday, Apple unveiled the latest version of its Watch, which — in addition to cosmetic updates — got new features like an FDA-cleared ECG app, irregular heart rate notification and fall detection. Meanwhile, Qualcomm launched a new made-for-wearables chip that promises much better battery life. Google also just released the latest iteration of Wear OS, which places your health data front and center. The company also worked with the American Heart Association (AHA) to come up with the new Fit app’s health-tracking system to encourage users to engage in more cardio activity.

On their own, each of those announcements is noteworthy (but not groundbreaking). Collectively, though, they make the wearable category, which has been struggling to prove its usefulness for years, feel relevant and promising again.

While we always knew about the potential for wearables to be excellent fitness companions, the latest announcements show us that companies are taking your overall health a lot more seriously. The smartwatches of 2018 and beyond will be more than glorified pedometers — they’ll actually offer useful information like whether you’re matching up to recommended activity standards.

Apple’s and Google’s collaborations with the AHA led to better interpretation of the heart rate data that the Apple Watch and Wear OS devices are constantly collecting. This way, they can be appealing to not only runners or exercise enthusiasts but also a wider audience that is more interested in their general health.

It’s interesting, too, that the Apple Watch Series 4 managed to get FDA clearance for its ECG and irregular rhythm notification — but I’d caution against relying on those features too heavily. First of all, the FDA decision classifies these two specific functions of the Watch as over-the-counter tools that should not be used in place of “traditional methods of diagnosis or treatment.” Plus, I’m not sure most people can make sense of an ECG. I had to ask a cousin who works as an ER doctor to see if anything was amiss with my own chart when I had a checkup years ago.

These devices are ultimately about detecting anomalies — events that deviate from your typical pattern. On the new Apple Watch, this means things like irregular heart rhythm (a possible sign of atrial fibrillation) or falls. In the case of the latter, if you fall and can’t get up, the Watch can also send for help.

Beyond general health tracking, this data will be useful for your doctor (should you choose to share your stats with your health care provider). Our memories are unreliable, which is why a regular record of our heart rate is much more helpful in catching potential problems early.

There’s also value in using your cardio data to measure your daily activity — and not just to tell you about your sleep stages and exercise zones like Fitbits and other trackers do. Though it’s not the only indicator of your overall well-being, your heart health is the easiest for smartwatches to track. Google is using this data in the new Fit to encourage people to lead more-active lives by attaining a recommended number of “Heart points” each week. This way, smartwatches not only are on the lookout for potentially worrying symptoms but also are becoming better at preventative care. In other words, the next generation of wearables can be both watchful guardian and naggy parent.

Cherlynn Low / Engadget

Let’s not forget Fitbit either, which launched the Charge 3 last month, along with a beta trial that uses the relative blood-oxygen sensors on its newer devices to study sleep disturbances. Samsung also launched its Galaxy Watch

Smartwatch
Smartwatch

last month, which offers a feature that tests your stress level.

Having used a few of these new devices and software for weeks now, I definitely find myself strapping on a smartwatch more often. My main reason is the sense of achievement I get from receiving a notification from Google Fit every day, telling me I’ve met (exceeded, actually) my fitness goals. Plus, they tell time, let me reply to my friends without taking out my phone and let me easily control my music.

One of the biggest gripes about smartwatches, though, is battery life, and nothing bums me out harder than having to leave my watch behind on a charger when I head out for work. Qualcomm’s new Wear 3100 CPU looks like it might improve performance on that front, thanks to revamped architecture and new battery-sipping modes. I’ll have to wait till I can test out a watch with the new chip to know for sure, but it’s encouraging to know that someone’s working on longer-lasting hardware.

It’s fair to say it’s time to be optimistic about wearables again, with upcoming answers to the category’s biggest complaints, like a lack of useful applications and disappointing battery life. While they still won’t replace a trip to your doctor (and probably never will), the next generation of smartwatches may have finally found a way to stay on your wrist.

BMW unveils its vision for the ‘iFuture’ of luxury vehicles

BMW iFUTURE
BMW iFUTURE

Our Demolition Man future is going to arrive just a bit sooner than we figured. Your next car may not be able to drive you to a local Taco Bell (since they all are in the Demolition universe), but BMW’s iNEXT concept vehicle certainly hints at a smart, semi-autonomous, hands-off driving experience within the next decade.

The iNEXT is the latest iteration of BMW’s “project i” that was started back in 2013 and has since spawned models like the i3 and i5, hence the naming scheme. This new model is an SAV (Sports Activity Vehicle), which takes the idea of “state of the art” and runs with it. Or, at least it will in 2021 when BMW expects “the car we know today as BMW iNEXT will come onto the market.”

The demo vehicle that BMW showed off, during its San Francisco stop on a four-city teaser tour, looked like it had driven straight out of San Angeles. The exterior was all angles and planes with a matte finish that melded from copper, on the hood, to rose gold on the rear spoiler.

Given the iNEXT’s electric powertrain, the front grille has been replaced with a beaver tooth (or rather “kidney-shaped” according to the press release) front plate, the cabin floor is completely flat allowing for a variety of seat layouts. It’s not that they’re really needed, the top half of the iNEXT’s front seats flip back 90 degrees on command to facilitate conversations with the rear passengers. (Read: better to threaten your kids with turning this car around if they don’t stop the horseplay already.)

Since the interior floor of the vehicle is flat (thanks to the underlying layer of Li-ion batteries), BMW’s design team sought to imagine the interior of the vehicle as the “Favorite Space” you’d want to be. As such, they incorporated a number of aspects from what you’d find in the modern living room into the vehicle’s passenger cabin.

The vehicle interior that BMW envisions somehow manages to blend bleeding edge of modern technology with your grandmother’s living room. There is no instrument console. Instead it’s been replaced with a pair of exceedingly large touchscreen displays that span the length of the dashboard. They need a sneeze guard, but that’s a different matter entirely. The left panel, dubbed “Boost,” displays relevant telemetry data while the right panel; “Ease” serves more as a smart planning coordinator, allowing you to check the state of your smart home security or the state of your social schedule.

The steering wheel totally does the Demolition Man thing where you can say “BMW, let me drive” and the steering wheel’s outer ring expands to a comfortable circumference for human hands. If the driver wishes to let the level 3 autonomous driving system (that means you can take your hands off the wheel and look away from the road for a while — but no napping) take over, they simply have to tap the emblem in the center of the steering wheel. BMW hopes to eventually upgrade the on-board autonomous systems to level 4 when more expansive parts of the US highway infrastructure come into regulatory code.

The center console was a juxtaposition of teal and walnut, the front seats a riot of peach, mid-century and modern aesthetics battering themselves at loggerheads. The back seats were splayed out as a single sheet of jacquard material, which presumably will be waterproofed since dear god, can you just imagine what your kids will do to it and the integrated touchscreens?

Oh, right, the back seats in the iNEXT have integrated touchscreens that control the sound system. Simply draw a musical note on a specific section of the seat and the radio turns on. Spread your thumb and forefinger to turn up the volume, squeeze them together to turn it down.

The integrated seat controls are part of the iNEXT’s “Shy Tech” system, essentially smart screens that are only visible to the user when they need to be. On the sound system touchpad, for example, its LED only lights up and the system activates when the user draws the proper pattern. While the current iteration is only applicable to fabric-based interfaces, the BMW design team hopes to eventually expand the functionality out to wood or other kinds of cloth.

Unfortunately, we weren’t able to take the iNEXT for a test drive. Namely because BMW held the entire press event on a remote SFO airfield aboard a Lufthansa-branded Boeing 777 cargo jet with the prototype already loaded aboard. Yeah, we stood in a plane to get pitched on a car.

The design team was understandably mum on when, or even if, many of these features will make it into other production models, but I, for one, hope they do. Because if you’re going to hand your life over to a robot chauffeur on the open road, you may as well do it in a cabin that mirrors your Nana’s sitting room. That’s living on the edge.

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