Comprehensive mobile health monitoring will truly become a reality when mobile health technology becomes invisible to the end user. By invisible, I mean the user forgets how the data is collected, but continues to reap all of the benefits through self-tracking and behavior change, personalized medicine and detection/tracking of medical conditions. The user enjoys all of these great benefits without going one inch out of his or her way.
When we look at mobile health today, we still see compliance as a major barrier to data collection. How many people have bought an activity monitor (Fitbit, Nike+ FuelBand, UP by Jawbone, etc.) only to eventually give up on the daily routine of charging and remembering to wear? There is no hard evidence available, but my guess would be that the number of activity monitors in the drawer or closet is high, especially beyond the quantified self movement. Mobile phones hold incredible promise to capture this data while overcoming compliance challenges, but there are still many data types and use cases that simply cannot be addressed by the phone alone.
But, what if compliance was simple? What if that activity monitor collecting dust was embedded in your credit card and the battery lasted until that card expired? What if your car was capturing your vital signs (heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure, etc.) every time you took a drive? What if your bed tracked your sleep? What if your bathroom mat was checking the health of your feet every morning? Finally, what if all of this information was pulled together in to a smart system that could make sense of it all and help you manage your health more efficiently?
The truth is that much of this is happening. Car manufacturers are working to embed health sensors and companies like Podimetrics and Bam Labs are placing sensors inside everyday objects to unobtrusively capture health data. Ultimately, there are two important trends that will ultimately make comprehensive and coordinated mobile health monitoring a reality. First, battery technology will significantly reduce the compliance barrier. At worst, your activity monitor will be embedded in your watch, but it will still act as a watch battery-wise. Second, more companies that provide products we use in our everyday life will incorporate sensors to capture health data.
It’s an exciting time in mobile health. These trends likely still have at least 5-10 years to play out, but the pieces are starting to fall in to place.
Apple is well known for its obsessive desire to create a clean and simple user experience. It’s one of many reasons why the company has been so successful. Apple’s controls make an incredibly complex device simple and easy to use. Apple removes the worry for the user. For example, the iPhone carefully restricts third party app functionality to protect users from a poor experience. That makes sense. In order to have a great user experience, we have to make these tradeoffs.
For developers, this is frustrating. One of the most frustrating Apple controls for us is the limited support for background processes or multitasking. While an iPhone user is actively using one app (foreground app), other apps are performing tasks in the background. To avoid slower processing speed or unnecessary battery drain, Apple restricts the tasks an app can perform in the background. For example, Apple prohibits apps to capture data from embedded motion sensors while in the background. That essentially prevents passive, all-day physical activity tracking on the iPhone and limits other use cases like passive posture detection, indoor localization, etc.
I think there is hope that developers will eventually have background access to motion sensors on the iPhone. Despite Apple’s battery life and processing speed concerns, these are grey area decisions. If there is enough value for the user (e.g. music apps playing in background, navigation apps accessing GPS, etc.), Apple has relinquished some control. Let’s hope Apple sees the value in mobile health applications and opens up the motion sensors for background processing.