Apple has made it clear that they now see the Watch as primarily being a fitness tracker and health monitoring device. While it runs apps and fills several other roles, these are now its primary functions and we can see that most of their development and new features are focused on these areas. There have been a few reports that have come to light over the last few months that show both how other companies are building on the Watch as a platform and where Apple may be going next.
A little over a month ago, the results of a study conducted by heart-tracking app Cardiogram and the University of California San Francisco suggested that the Apple Watch can be used to detect serious conditions like Sleep Apnea and Hypertension. The study included 6,115 participants and the data was interpreted by Cardiogram’s DeepHeart neural network. The results showed that their network was able to use data from the Watch to detect high blood pressure with 82% accuracy and sleep apnea with 90% accuracy.
Bear in mind that these results were achieved with the Watch’s stock sensors, and no additional accessories. It shows just how accurate they are, and how powerful they can be when paired with an advanced AI for analysis. In fact, this isn’t the first time Cardiogram has used its neural network to detect heart issues using the Watch. They also used them to detect common abnormal heart rhythms with 97% accuracy, which was reported back in May.
Both of these reports show the potential of the Watch as a platform for health providers and developers to build on. It also shows the applications for research, as Apple themselves has since partnered with Stanford to study whether the Watch can accurately detect arrhythmia and other common heart problems.
More recently, we have more examples of the expansion of the Apple Watch health ecosystem. AliveCor, a heath-focused company run by Vic Gundotra of former Google fame, has developed the first FDA-cleared EKG for use with the Apple Watch. The KardiaBand (pictured above) is an Apple Watch band that has a pad that can be used as a real-time EKG. It allows you to record 30 second EKGs anytime, anywhere. With their subscription service (required for use), AliveCor saves all EKG data, and provides users with monthly reports on their collected data. They also use AI analysis to spot anomalies in heart rhythm and give users a notification to take an immediate EKG reading to try and catch problems in real time.
This device shows the range of possibilities for specialized health monitoring using an Apple Watch for those who will benefit from it. There have been other EKG, heat rate, and blood pressure monitoring devices geared toward the Apple Watch and smartphones, but having an FDA-approved device signifies a level of quality and accuracy that users with health issues can trust. If more of these kinds of accessories start to appear for the Watch, it could be a big boost for the Watch platform. Even if it doesn’t result in a massive sales boost, it definitely raises its visibility and prestige and opens up new markets and possibilities.
Another report from Bloomberg just last week says that Apple is developing an integrated EKG monitor for a future version of the Apple Watch. This would obviously be a huge step forward in health functionality for the Watch, if true.
According to the report, taking a reading would require the wearer to squeeze the frame of the Watch with two fingers on the user’s free hand. The Watch would then pass current through the connection to take the reading, which seems like a novel application of the necessary technology.
While this report is certainly interesting, Alex Webb of Bloomberg was clear that the sources from Apple say this technology and application is still in development and that there is no guarantee that it will be included in a future product. Another point to note is that there is no mention of an intent to seek FDA approval. In fact, given how rigorous and time consuming the approval process can be, I highly doubt that Apple would seek it for an on-board feature of the Apple Watch. A more likely scenario would be to include this as an accurate, but not FDA approved feature, much like the existing heart rate monitor. Apple could then leave the market for more accurate FDA-approved monitors to third parties such as AliveCor.
One thing is clear when you look at all of these various reports and products together. Apple has built the most robust health momitoring platform at this point, and based on their fast growth in the world of fitness and wearables, it will be difficult for anyone other manufacturer to catch up. If third parties continue to build high-end monitoring products for use with the Watch, and major Universities continue to conduct studies based on Watch data, then Apple’s position will only become more entrenched.