I had the pleasure of meeting Sonny Vu, CEO of Misfit Wearables, this past spring at the Smart Fabrics conference. Among the highlights of the conference was his talk "From Fittech to Medtech, The Possibilities of Smart Fabrics" that presented an overview of current wearable tech products and insight on how to bring medical products to market.
What strongly resonated with me was Vu's holistic approach to product design — or shall I say, wearable systems design. Vu emphasized the importance of making wearables — well — wearable in what he coined as "Wearables 2.0." Beyond the "wearablility" factor, Vu also highlighted two very important (in hindsight, seemingly obvious) factors that every other wearable currently on the market seems to entirely omit:
(1) Wearable tech garments shouldn't have to be remembered to be worn and (2) they should have functionality other than sensing. In other words, Vu seems to be advocating for the technology to become invisible and the wearable product to be recognized first and foremost as a garment rather than a gadget.
At the University of Southern California’s sixth annual Body Computing Conference in Los Angeles this month, Sonny Vu announced that Misfit Wearables will debut their products mid-november. Pre-orders will likely happen initially through Kickstarter.
In anticipation, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sonny Vu to gain further insight on what role he envisions wearables playing in the health and wellness industry.
A combination of an aging population and an increase in chronic disease has dramatically increased health costs. How can wearable health monitoring systems be used to reduce escalating health costs?
SV: If people actually use these products, we will not only have more data, but also better quality data. It’s better because it doesn’t require user intention to gather and can be used to enable or enhance many applications. The most obvious ones are clinical and consumer decision support, remote patient diagnostics and monitoring, emergency detection and response, health behavior insight generation, and possibly even compliance/adherence monitoring.
In your "Whose Lives Could Mobile Health Improve" infographic it becomes clear that "mobile health" is predominately targeted at the management of chronic disease such as diabetes and obesity. Since prevention and management of most chronic diseases is about encouraging lifestyle changes, how can wearable technology be used to ultimately change human behavior?
SV: I’m no BJ Fogg when it comes to understanding how to help people modify their behaviors. Probably one of the most important things wearables can do is to make people much more aware of changes in their health condition and to give them instant feedback (assuming they have the relevant actuators). This can motivate them to take actions that lead to small wins, and towards a positive change. Next, wearables, when done well, can provide data and insights that may only come from ambient, “unintentional” sensing. Finally, I think a good complete wearable experience can be designed to modify negative health habits by facilitating changes in routines (cf. my favorite read, Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit). This of course presupposes that really useful services and meaningful insights are provided to the user in conjunction with the use of wearables.
" Probably one of the most important things wearables can do is to make people much more aware of changes in their health condition and to give them instant feedback (assuming they have the relevant actuators)."
The"Health Devices at a Glance" infographic alludes to the desire of physicians to have patients monitor everything from their blood sugar levels to sleep patterns. Do you feel a patient's active participation in monitoring their health can lead to a better understanding of their bodies and habits?
SV: Not really, because I don’t think people generally like to actively participate in monitoring their health. I think people generally prefer to have the monitoring done passively. For the small segment of early adopters, high-concern users, their active participation will of course help. But even for them such participation is difficult to maintain over time unless they get some real value out of it unless it’s already embedded in a habit.
"... I don’t think people generally like to actively participate in monitoring their health. I think people generally prefer to have the monitoring done passively."
In what ways do you feel wearable health monitoring/diagnostic systems will change our day to day lives?
SV: Two ways, provided that it is done well. First we can hope for more genuinely “wearable” products, so people will not have to carry everything around (stress monitors, glucose meters, pedometers, heart rate straps, etc..).
Secondly, we will gain a host of insights that may have been difficult to attain without data acquired ambiently — the user forgetting that data was being collected.
Currently what technical obstacles do you see that diminish the user experience in current wearable technology products? Is wearable technology really wearable yet?
SV: There are some wearable products out there that are pretty wearable – like the shirt and bra from miCoach (originally from Textronics), though you’d only use them if you’re working out / running. I think some of the tough technical challenges that diminish user experience are:
•Recharging - you don’t have to recharge your clothes now, so why should you have to recharge wearable stuff? It would be nice to not have to recharge all the time, though I don’t think users would mind replacing batteries once or twice a year.
• Requiring skin contact – I kind of like my t-shirt hanging off my body and not wearing compression shirts all the time; it would be nice if this requirement didn’t exist.
• Washability – I guess it’s not that hard to protect stuff when you’re washing it (though heat drying might be another matter), but I haven’t seen too many instances of wearables that can be washed (a lot) and are not bulky.
• Affordability – anyone who’s done a consumer product knows that consumers are generally very price sensitive. So how do you make this stuff, say a sensor-embedded t-shirt or something, only slightly more expensive than a regular t-shirt? There seems to be plenty of examples of cool prototypes and high-end wearable products out there but how many have actually been / can be designed for low-cost manufacturing on a massive scale?
"You don’t have to recharge your clothes now, so why should you have to recharge wearable stuff?"
How is designing wearable technology systems different than designing medical devices?
SV: There’s lots to talk about here so let me just focus on one aspect that’s probably on many people’s minds: a product becomes a medical device in need of regulatory clearance (at least in the US and the EU) when it has medical claims associated with it. To get clearance for commercial sale, you basically have to be able to support these claims in regulatory filings you’d have to do for you product. To do so you will need, among other things, a quality system that specifies how you develop and test products, document your work and deal with issues that arise, etc.
This system has to be more formal/ rigorous than the equivalent for a non medical consumer electronic device. Then you have to demonstrate that you comply with the system. None of this is all that “difficult” but there are probably more infrastructure, process/procedures, etc. than you might normally require if you weren’t developing a medical device.
What role does "design research" and/or ethnographic research play in your process? How do you learn about the needs of your end users and their behaviors?
SV: Gosh there are many schools of thought here – at Misfit, we believe as Steve Job’s would say that it’s not the customer’s role to know what they want. At the start of our design process, we begin with thinking about what people do already and try to figure out ways to insert useful products and services into those activities. As for wearables, we think about what people already wear, how they wear it, what they do with it, etc. Then we see if we can fit sensors, etc. into those things as invisibly as possible, without asking them to do anything they wouldn’t already normally do. This is in contradiction to an approach say where you get the sensors you can already make and assume people won’t mind strapping them on.
"...We think about what people already wear, how they wear it, what they do with it, etc. Then we see if we can fit sensors, etc. into those things as invisibly as possible, without asking them to do anything they wouldn’t already normally do."
What can you learn/co-opt from the fashion design and manufacturing process?
SV: I don’t know much about fashion design other than what I do on an amateur basis for the pieces I make for myself and my friends. But one thing I would say is that one should start with manufacturing in mind FIRST and design everything for manufacturing from as early a stage as possible. I think it’s possible to do this without constraining your imagination too much. Definitely go with making small batches wherever possible and iterate as much as you can afford to. Things never come out exactly as you think it will…
What are the non-technical challenges in prototyping and bringing to market wearable technology products?
SV: Stuff just never fits or feels as comfortable as you think it might so as mentioned above, iterate as much as you can afford to. Inventory control can also be a nightmare, especially if you have multiple models. Models x sizes x version upgrades = lots of SKUs! It’ll serve a group/company well to have a great supply chain management resource or partner!
Lastly, on a personal note, do you monitor/track your own physiological data?
SV: For sure, although I try not to be too obsessive about it. I’ve been testing my blood glucose fairly regularly (nearly daily) on an episodic and sometimes a continuous basis for almost a decade now. I also monitor weight, activity, and occasionally, happiness.
To learn more about Misfit Wearables or enjoy more of their lovely infographics, visit misfitwearables.com.