By Imaan Virani· On April 19, 2016

Over centuries, homo sapiens have evolved based on our ability to adapt to new environments and pass on superior traits to subsequent generations.

This phenomenon, known as Darwin’s theory of natural selection, has benefitted those possessing favourable physical characteristics throughout evolution and still rings true today. Given the rising incidences of disease and the onset of an obesity epidemic, health and fitness are indeed at the forefront of the global agenda.

Despite this looming epidemic, wearable devices that measure every conceivable performance metric are helping us to optimize our health and activity levels like never before. Today, we can equip ourselves with devices, apps, and accessories that improve our fitness; like Darwinian evolution, in the battle of the wearables, only the technologies with proven results will survive and be integrated into our lives (and limbs).

Beyond providing data and personalized insights, the “fittest” companies will be the ones that consistently deliver superior value. Wearables will evolve, and the metrics they provide have the potential to become quasi-currency while creating opportunities and incentives to achieve fitness goals.

A Primer on Wearables

The introduction of “wearables,” or wearable technology, marked the beginning of the “Quantified Self Movement,” a term coined by Journalist Gary Wolf. Customers are able to use wearables to quantify their daily performance and activity levels in order to set benchmarks and measure their progress. The craving for more data, metrics and progress reports in these wearables is what drives the market’s growth.

Wearables gained traction in 2014 with devices like the Fitbit, Jawbone, and Nike Fuel Band that measure basic data such as steps, sleep quality & heart rate (Spence, 2014). With revenues expected to hit $19 billion by 2020, the wearables market is rapidly evolving [Statista].

If there is an aspect of your health that can be measured, then there’s likely a wearable for that. Lumo Lift is a clip on device that tracks your posture with biomechanic sensors and sends you gentle reminders whenever you need to straighten up. Athos designs clothing that shows which muscles are being worked and at what level of intensity; Prana uses a discreet tracker to monitor your breathing and facilitate breathing exercises through their partner App; and Violet is attached to your clothing to track UV exposure so you know when to apply sunscreen. The list goes on.

If 2014 was the Year of Wearable Data, then 2015 was the year of providing context-driven action. Yet in 2015, even this was no longer enough for the fitness-savvy consumer.

The question becomes, if a company has reliable data and meaningful insights, isn’t that a winning strategy? The answer, unfortunately, is no. It’s good, but not good enough. Statistics alone cannot change habits.

Wearable companies provide motivation to improve a user’s health through two primary drivers: personal progress and social encouragement. Every wearable essentially offers the same thing: a multitude of data for the user and the chance to compare that with their friends.

Ultimately, however, you are not buying a FitBit to access & publicize your data; you’re buying it to achieve a healthy, more active life.

Following an examination of results from progress reports, tips on improving performance and customized recommendations, it became clear that the next phase in the evolution of wearables will involve going beyond data. Arda Coaching Engine takes a 360 degree view of physical context to offer real-time, personalized advice and not just sensory data. Addap consolidates data from multiple wearables to show how your activities impact each other (ex. how sleep time impacts your step count).

With access to insights and contextual data, a challenge still exists. It appears that even with information and personalized insights, consumers do not have the motivation or incentive to change. According to the American Council on Exercise, 1/3 of customers stopped using their tracker within 6 months of receiving it. Nearly 1/2 stopped within a year.

Wearables turn into a fad if the user finds no sustainable value in using them. The challenge is that companies will begin to see that simply providing a personal tracking device along with a social platform does not provide enough motivation to actually result in the desired behaviour. After all, does earning a “Challenge Badge” on your FitBit really motivate you to walk an extra 3000 steps?

Data as the New Currency

The next wave of evolution is when corporations & institutions will leverage wearable data allowing consumers to use it, like currency, to receive rewards. This approach will also steer behaviour when data creates sufficient motivation to induce data desired action.

In 2016, wearables will evolve by playing off the pleasure principle: the idea that humans are motivated either by rewards or punishment.

Already, we see FitBit partnering with retail companies to offer customers discounts on products that facilitate a healthy lifestyle — thereby turning high-performing metrics into another avenue for results. For example, Walgreens Balance Rewards offers users 20 Balance Rewards for every mile a user walks [Walgreens].

Insurance premiums are another great example of this effect. Manulife Insurance is already developing a program whereby users receive lower premiums in exchange for using a fitness tracker. In the medical area, Waterloo startup Medella Health and tech giant Google are both developing contact lenses that track your blood pressure levels and send that data directly to the user’s doctor.

These partnerships make fitness wearables the key to savings, convenience and, ultimately, results. Users no longer have to rely on their own discipline to change their behaviour when reacting to their metrics. The business model capitalizes on simple motivation principles to incentivize people into achieving the results they ultimately sought out to begin with.

While some companies are already experimenting with this new level of engagement, most partnerships of this kind still are in their infancy. Of FitBit’s 35 partner apps, only two motivate behaviour through reward or punishment.

Ultimately, the wearables that survive will be ones that can seamlessly integrate their metrics with other parties to enable users to reach their goals and earn rewards.

Imagine a world where FitBit points were more than just metrics; they could be exchanged for discounts at vitamin stores, franchises or for healthy groceries. Companies like Fitbit or Jawbone could partner with healthy urban restaurants such as Freshi to make healthy food more affordable for those who are working towards their goal. This way, a FitBit not only motivates individuals to take extra steps — it helps uplift other areas of life as well. Your fitness tracker becomes the new digital currency that motivates you to make better choices.

For businesses, this represents a remarkable way to segment customers and offer personalized promotions. Insurance discounts become cheaper based on daily activity. Health companies offer more personalized support based on daily blood pressure statistics. Athletic wear companies can provide discounts to people already hitting their fitness goals according to pre-set metrics.

For the wearable companies, this will represent a milestone in customer loyalty. If a FitBit is what will provide the key to cheaper athletic wear, access to healthier food options, and more accurate sleep consultant sent to sleep psychologists, then that is an investment that consumers will make for life.

Finally, for the customer, this means better results. Instead of being overwhelmed by data, or bothered by spam-like notifications, their wearable becomes a one-stop shop for personal development. In one purchase, they gain access to the content, motivation, and most of all, the incentive to make changes. Where this data once existed in isolation, it now bridges the gap and enables users to lead healthier lives. The key takeaway: the new wave of successful wearables will be the ones that will use strategic partnerships to actually produce the desired results.

The Road Ahead

Evolution requires the adaptation of new traits — and companies will need to develop new abilities to come out on top. In order to gain credibility as a quasi-currency, data must be proven as accurate. There is still wide debate over the accuracy of fitness trackers, particularly the ones that try to quantify more complicated metrics.

Furthermore, more advanced nanotechnology makes devices heavier; something that will have to be addressed when customers value aesthetics and design.

Finally, a host of privacy and ethical issues arise when corporations and institutions gain access to large amounts of private data. To have an insurance company deem your premiums based on how “fit” you’ve been over the past year is reminiscent of something Orwellian.

Darwin’s theory proposes that evolution is a long, slow process that gradually leads to a superior species with superior traits. The world of wearables is still evolving, but in a changing world where data is what links the internet of things to our real surroundings, companies will continue to test and experiment to see what sticks.

Ultimately, only the most superior wearables will survive.