HealthKit in iOS 8 offers the promise of a centralized system so iPhone owners can collect and track their own health and fitness data in a single place, and it gives other companies a common platform to feed information into. Apple will no doubt capitalize on that with the rumored iWatch as its first move into the fitness tracking market. But it doesn't seem likely the company will be content to stick to just our wrists, which opens the door for a whole line of wearable tech -- including versatile sensors that know what data to collect based on where they are on your body.
Apple's fitness sensors may be aimed at more than just your wrist
HealthKit is a new feature in iOS 8 that acts as a sort of centralized gateway for health and fitness trackers to feed information to the iPhone. Once that data is safely tucked away, users can view it in iOS 8's Healthbook app and choose what information to share with their doctors or other health care providers. iOS 8 will ship this fall as a free update for the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch and Apple is actively working on getting health care providers on board ahead of the official launch.
The rumored iWatch will reportedly include a laundry list of sensors for tracking fitness and health-related activities, which in and of itself is probably enough to give competitors cause for concern because it will likely track more data than other products -- and pack it all into a sleek looking design that ties in seamlessly with the iPhone. If Apple offers a device that tracks your daily steps, along with flights of stairs climbed, calories burned, heart rate, body mass index, sleep patterns, and more to give users a better picture of our overall health and fitness status, the iWatch has the potential to be a compelling alternative to other popular fitness trackers such as the Fitbit One, Fitbit Flex, Jawbone Up, and Withings Pulse.
The Flex, Up and Pulse all collect data from a single physical point on your body, and presumably the iWatch will, too. That data collection doesn't, however, need to be limited to one location and could be collected from sensors on our shoes, in our shirts, on our shorts, or most anyplace you can stick one on your body. Freeing the sensors from our wrists makes Apple's health and fitness data collection far more flexible, and the groundwork is already in place for the company to do just that.
Next up: Fitness Sensors Everywhere
Page 2 - Stick it to Me: Fitness Sensors Everywhere
Placing sensors on other parts of our bodies isn't a novel idea, and some companies are already working on product lines that position sensors on our chest, arm, or thigh. Athos and OM Signal, for example both have high tech clothing in development that can monitor your heart rate and breathing as well as other data points to give you real time feedback on your workout session.
Both companies are following relatively similar paths: Their shirts and shorts are built so the fabric itself acts as part of the data gathering system, and removable sensor packs tucked into small pockets complete the process and transmit the data they gather back to your iPhone. Neither company is shipping their products yet, but both are planning fall 2014 launches.
Mbody already has smart biking and running shorts on the market that track heart rate, cadence, and muscle load, plus route and speed thanks to a built-in GPS.
Even Ralph Lauren is getting in on the wearable fitness tracker game with its own smart shirt of sorts. The fashion company teamed up with OM Signal to design a biometric sensor shirt it will be testing at the United States Open tennis tournament -- a shirt with conductive threads woven into the fabric and a small sensor pack that collects the data those threads transmit.
If Apple does cover us in sensors hopefully we'll look more stylish that the Borg
If Apple follows the same path, it could launch its own clothing line to work with its sensors. The company already has a high tech fabric expert on staff: former Nike engineer Ben Shaffer. The company also has former Yves St Laurent executive Paul Deneve on its special projects team, and his fashion industry background could come in handy with Apple-branded fitness clothing designs.
Apple doesn't, however, have to limit its clothing options just to in-house designs. The company could release a fitness sensor specification other companies could use to offer Apple sensor support in their clothing.
That said, Apple has a history of doing its own thing instead of partnering with other companies. Apple could decide it's getting into the fitness clothing business and create a clothing system for its sensors, but there isn't any reason why the company couldn't create a "Made for iWear" program where other manufacturers design shorts, shorts, and other compatible clothing. In essence, Apple would treat clothing as an accessory for its fitness sensors.
Consumers buy the fitness apparel they want, and then buy sensors modules at their local Apple store to plug in when they're ready to start tracking activity. Since the sensor packs would be removable, users could swap them between their collection of compatible shirts and shorts based on the type of activity they're currently involved in.
Next Up: Apple's Fitness Patent Trail
Page 3 - There's a Patent for That: Apple's Fitness Trail
Sifting through the tea leaves to sort out Apple's future product plans often includes a trip to the patent office, and that's certainly the case for its wearables. Two patent applications in particular fit with the idea that wearable sensors could be part of the company's future.
The first patent application describes a wrist-worn pedometer device that sounds similar to the Jawbone Up or Fitbit Flex. What sets this patent apart from other fitness tracking devices is that it also describes how Apple's sensor can auto-detect where it is on your body and adapt to its new location so it continues to accurately count your steps.
A sensor that can detect where it is based on motion is far more flexible than one designed to be worn on a specific part of your body, and Apple doesn't have to limit the sensor to the iWatch; it could mount it in a small housing designed to be tucked into pockets on specially designed clothes.
The second patent application lays the foundation for just that. The unassuming description, "Personal items network, and associated methods," includes a description of a system where devices can communicate wirelessly to determine if any other item in the group is missing. It also includes a description of a sensor that can be attached to your body to track motion and force, and that part sounds like a critical piece in a movable fitness sensor design.
Apple uses a karate kick as an example: Sensors are placed on your ankles and knees, which then register data points like speed, angle and force when kicking. Those same sensors, depending on where they're placed, can track other sports and fitness-related activities.
Apple filed for a patent on wearable sensors that track more than just our steps
The two patents together create a very compelling and versatile fitness and sports activity tracking system that doesn't involve wearing a wrist band, and doesn't even require Apple to design and build the iWatch. Apple and other companies can design compatible clothing, and customers buy sensors as they need, then slide them into the shirt or shorts they're wearing that day.
Since the sensors will collect data from whatever clothing item they're connected to, users could gather more detailed information about their fitness activities by wearing more than one. They could, for example, have one in their shirt, another in their shorts, and a third in their shoes. The combined data can match up steps and pace with heart rate, respiration, and location to paint a much more detailed picture of your athletic activity.
So far, Apple hasn't given us any hints as to exactly what it plans to do in the wearables market, but based on the company's hirings over the past couple years, it looks like the focus is on health and fitness -- especially since those are features we'll see in iOS 8's Health app and HealthKit this fall. While patents aren't a guarantee that a product is coming, the pieces are there should Apple decide to put them all together.
What we do know for sure is that Apple has an interest in wearable technology, the company has been hiring health and fitness sensor experts, and the company has filed for patents that seem tailor-made for fitness trackers. That very well could mean the iWatch is coming, but I hope it also means we'll get some more versatile fitness tracking options from Apple, too.