My Pebble Smartwatch – Experiences so far & potential future applications

photo from http://getpebble.com

For those of you who don’t know, the Pebble Smartwatch has been the first of the ‘next’ crop of smartwatches out of the gate.  Smartwatches already have considerable history, most of which has been rather poor.  Pebble is the first company that has approached getting it right, and its success has already stimulated a whole new crop of smartwatches that can be expected soon from the likes of Apple, Samsung, Google, Sony, amongst many many others.  While it may not be the most aesthetically pleasing piece of tech you’re going to see, and I’ve no doubt the big players I just mentioned will come out with all manner of slicker looking and functioning devices, the fact that Pebble is a start-up company who took a single idea and did it well means they’ve already got me in their corner.  You know, root for the little guy. 

Pebble is also still one of the biggest success stories that grew out of the crowd-funding website Kickstarter despite finishing their funding campaign over a year ago.  Since I was one of the 70,000 Kickstarter backers, I got my Pebble back in March before it was available for retail.  I’m going to offer a short description of how the Pebble has changed the way I interact with my world, and then present a few ideas about how I’d like to see this type of wearable technology integrate with how we provide healthcare.

First, a caveat.  As some readers will be aware, when it comes to the iOS vs. Android, debate, I’m Android all the way.  Not to say I don’t have my share of iOS devices (in fact, at one point I owned 10 iPads for research use), but when it comes to my personal devices, if given the choice I’ll always choose Android.  In this case, that appears to have helped me out.  I won’t pretend to fully understand, but because of the way the two different operating systems handle apps running in the background, the experience of pairing a Pebble with an Android device is apparently much smoother than pairing it with an iOS device.  This may have changed through recent updates (and will almost definitely change when iOS 7 is available), but for now I’m presenting my experiences with the Android side of things. 

The watch itself is probably most analogous to a Kindle e-reader – it has an e-ink display which means it’s easy on the eyes even outdoors, and it has no touchscreen, you navigate through the various menus using hardware buttons, or using the app on your smartphone.  Out of the box, a Pebble smartwatch can be set up without too much trouble and it will give you the first 3 or 4 lines of your text messages, the subject line and first few lines of the body of your emails, and will show you who’s calling on an incoming call.  This is all done through Bluetooth connectivity (another caveat: Android in fact has a deplorable history with Bluetooth support, but the good folks at Pebble made sure that wasn’t a problem for their device.  The new Android 4.3 update has finally allowed pairing with Bluetooth low-energy devices, which will make wearable tech much more useable in the future).  You can set the watch to vibrate a bit any time a notification comes in, or you can turn the vibration off.  There aren’t a whole lot of options in the main application regarding frequency of email push for example, but there are a growing number of apps in the respective app stores that will allow you to tweak things to your liking a bit more.  For example, I use one called Augmented Smartwatch Pro that presents all sorts of tweaking options.

Other fun features of the watch include the ability to install different watchfaces, either from the main Pebble website or from other sites like mypebblefaces.com.  In fact, you can even create your own watchface without too much trouble (and no coding skills required) at http://www.watchface-generator.de/.  Newer advancements are allowing watchfaces that push you weather updates and alerts (the rain alerts I get are freakishly accurate: ‘chance of light rain in 21 minutes, for 46 minutes off/on’, accurate almost to the minute), but this does require additional apps on your smartphone such as Pebble Connect or Pebbler.  Other 3rd party app makers are also coming on board, like RunKeeper, which pushes my time, distance, and pace to my watch while I’m running (assuming you have a phone with a GPS and data plan) so I don’t need a Garmin or other such training watch.  FreeCaddie pushes my distance to the hole to my watch any time I’m out golfing – which has made absolutely no difference to my terrible golf game, but it’s cool all the same.  There will no doubt be additional functions coming down the pipes, so looking forward to what comes next.

As far as how it’s changed the way I interact in my daily life, I will say it’s increased my ability to keep on top of my communications.  Now when I’m in a meeting and I get a text, I can quickly glance at my watch to determine whether it’s something I need to deal with now or can wait until later.  If I’m chatting with someone and I get a phone call, same deal, it’s much less obnoxious to glance at your watch than it is to pull out your phone and see who’s calling.  Although that said, when I first got my Pebble my wife always thought I was in a hurry when I was talking to her since I kept checking my watch.  Probably a happy medium to be had there.  So that’s where we are right now.

But what excites me the most is the potential for this type of technology (whether it be the Pebble or some other piece of tech).  Consider for a moment a future in which, as a clinician, you give your phone or some other device with motion sensing capabilities and Bluetooth connectivity, have the patient perform some kind of standardized and well-defined movement, and then glance at your watch to see if the movement profile of your patient matches some existing database of captured movements.  For example, give your patient with shoulder pain your phone, and ask them to perform one or two movements through full elevation.  The phone does the heavy lifting of comparing that movement pattern to a known database of patterns, and your watch says: this movement pattern is most similar to 300 other people who have known supraspinatus tendonopathy, or superior labrum tears, or adhesive capsulitis (if you can accept that diagnosis), etc…  In fact, most of these wearable tech devices themselves have their own motion sensors built in – I believe the Pebble has a 3-axis accelerometer for example, which may even give them the ability to identify stereotypical aberrant movement patterns themselves without having to give up your phone.  Or consider another application, where your patient calls or emails you to ask if it’s time for them to come back in for progression of their exercise program.  You ask them to open an app on their phone or watch, perform a few standardized movements, and their precise digital range of motion is then sent to you as a text or email.  You as clinician compare their mobility against previous, and decide whether it appears that mobility has increased to a point that it’s time to progress exercises.  Even these are relatively simple ideas, I’m sure people will come up with far more interesting and innovative uses of this new wearable tech as go forward, but I see a real paradigmatic shift on the horizon in how we integrate consumer technologies with rehabilitation.