The term ‘smart’ suggests that a product helps the user solve an everyday problem. However, solutions to problems mostly require a number of different man-machine systems to interact. they must register, analyse, take action and monitor outcomes. Data from health monitors data needs to feed into a professional decision system such as the family doctor, the hospital specialist or an AI system. This ensures that examination, diagnosis and treatment regime result in the beneficial outcome. That requires a lot more than just a ‘smart’ product.
The Smart Health Monitor Watch
So what issues does a smart product like the Apple Watch or Fitbit alleviate or solve? On the health front, they can monitor specific body activities such as heart rate, number of steps walked, stairs climbed, exercise done, sleep rhythms etc. It puts some numbers on our daily activities. However, there are no studies that have shown smart watch wearers to be healthier than comparable non-smart-watch users. Also, the smart watch data does not feed into any public health system. It’s not really data that you would take along to your family doctor. Certainly, no professional health worker would rely on the precision of consumer devices. The standard of today’s professional medical monitoring equipment is in a whole different league.
For normal exercise routines involving swimming, biking and running the smart watch can document performance parameters. We can use these to compare performance with friends (but mostly with ourselves). It makes it more fun to work out, and introduces an element of competition even when running alone or on a treadmill. However, serious athletes who rely on precise performance measurements are disappointed by the significant margins of error in consumer devices. Some research indicates up to 20% margins of error in pulse measures for example. Just look at Apple’s own assessment of Apple Watch measurements (https://support.apple.com/en-us/HT204666):
… skin perfusion varies significantly from person to person and can also be impacted by the environment. If you’re exercising in the cold, for example, the skin perfusion in your wrist may be too low for the heart rate sensor to get a reading. Motion is another factor that can affect the heart rate sensor. Rhythmic movements, such as running or cycling, give better results compared to irregular movements, like tennis or boxing.
The Smart Home
Devices like Google’s Nest and Samsung’s SmartThings hub collect data from video cameras, movement sensors, smoke detectors and utility (heating, electricity, water) metering etc. Data is analysed and made available on your mobile phone, and alarms go off if certain data patterns are identified. So a window being opened, or smoke being detected can trigger alarms and send out alerts across fixed and mobile networks. But can you react in time?
Interestingly, insurance companies who 5-10 years ago offered lower home insurance payments for customers with alarm systems installed have mostly reduced these discounts as they had shown limited deterrent effect. Burglars are long gone before police and/or security company people arrive on the scene. When ‘smart’ security devices are sold without the corresponding support organisation that can dynamically address and resolve the issue, they risk offering a false sense of security, by ignoring the fact that burglars are getting smarter as well.
Products are just Lego blocks
As we develop products loaded with more processing power, manufacturers should be careful to set the right customer expectations and focus on exactly what the ‘smart’ function is and how it can contribute to problem resolution.
An illustration of this is the ‘self-driving car’ innovations that are changing our whole concept of personal transportation. Manufacturers have avoided the ‘smart’ car moniker – in part because there is a smart car brand [Smart Automobile, a division of Daimler AG], but also because the focus is specifically on the driving function of an individual car. The self-driving car is not just about cars with navigation systems and cameras, it’s about new road systems, new energy management, new legislation etc. all aimed at reducing the number of cars on the roads, reducing pollution levels and the number of accidents they are involved in.
Whether something is ‘smart’ or not should be judged by the buyer rather than the seller. ‘Smart’ should not be a product category in and of itself, because ‘dumb’ versions of the product may actually be a lot more user friendly. Continuously pushing smart-labelled solutions into the marketplace that continue to underwhelm users may ultimately kill the product – smart watches and smart homes certainly run the risk of a consumer backlash.