Me, Myself and I.T.

Smartwatches keep track of every step we take and measure heart rate as well as sleep patterns. The aim of the constant collection of data is to improve your fitness – but it can also be a burden for the psyche.

Smartwatches represent the lion’s share of “wearables” – devices worn on the body. Photo: Fotolia – Production Perig

The goal is 10,000 steps per day. At least it is if you ask Woody Scal, Sales Director and Board Member with wearables manufacturer Fitbit. Their wristbands and tracking sensors helped kick-start the current megatrend of “self-tracking.” Especially for the athletically inclined, the movement sensors and self-measurement that they enable have been enthusiastically received. Logging one’s own movement behavior and bodily functions such as heart rate and sleep cycles before analyzing it with apps or computer platforms is a rapidly growing trend. The prevailing term for this – “Quantified Self” – was coined by Californian tech journalists Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly, who have been detailing the topic since 2007 on their blog

Market research firm Gartner states that approximately 310 million wearables were sold in 2017. This equates to a market growth of 17 percent over the previous year. The lion’s share of those devices were smartwatches. “User taste has developed from fitness trackers to smartwatches,” reports Ramon Llamas, Manager for Wearables at Gartner-competitor IDC. Angela McIntyre, Research Director at Gartner confirms this: “Smartwatches have the potential to be the biggest earner of all wearables by 2021.”

Sport Trackers as the Logical ­Continuation of Stopwatches and Measuring Tapes

For amateur athletes, the data logged by ­Apple Watch, Samsung Gear, Garmin vivoactive, Polar, Suunto and many other fitness-sensor-equipped devices is playing an increasingly important role. “In sport, a goal has always been to objectively measure performance,” explains Sports Scientist Prof. Dr. Ingo Froböse from the German Sports University Cologne (see interview). From this perspective, the logging and analysis of step counts, heart rates and many other metrics is the logical continuation of stopwatches and measuring tapes. New, however, is that every amateur athlete can analyze their own performance profile individually and track this over longer periods. Sport thereby becomes a digital experience.

Depending on the type of athlete, the upward fitness curves in apps and analysis platforms also help with motivation and scaling training success. The focus here is not just bettering one’s own performance metrics, but also regularly comparing with the similarly-minded. The analysis platforms of Fitbit, Garmin, Nike, Tomtom and many others therefore offer the option to compare one’s own performance data with that of others. Users of running training app Runtastic post their routes and times on Facebook and open themselves up to the judgment of their friends and colleagues.

While ambitious and well-conditioned amateur athletes connect through the aforementioned platforms, tracking and sport apps also play an important role for beginners and occasional sports persons. The value here is in overcoming one’s weaker self. Likes and motivational comments from friends can prove a great boost here. Or even apps such as “Runtastic Story Running,” “Tracks” or “Zombies Run,” which embed the running training in elaborate computer game scenarios. Whether fleeing from zombies, the two-meter tall monsters in “Tracks,” or trying to discover one’s own identity or track a kidnapped partner through a city in action-movie style, one is distracted from the fact that this is actually an intelligently planned interval training workout. “Gamification” is the name of this trend, which sees developers of sporting apps cooperate with those of computer games.


Dr. Ingo Froböse. Photo: Monika Sandel

Three questions to Dr. Ingo Froböse, Sport Scientist, German Sport University Cologne

Do smartwatches and trackers truly provide amateur athletes with real value?

Yes, as such “gadgets” document training performance, they assist beginners in estimating their own performance better. Especially at the beginning, quick progress can be seen, which motivates the individual to continue with sport. However, after six or eight weeks, performance does not improve as rapidly. This is when motivation needs to be maintained through other means, such as rewards.

What measurements should we keep our eye on especially?

Heart rate, stopwatch, step count and elapsed distance are all useful, while calories burned and sleep phases are often too complex. Data that can’t be processed by the user in a useful manner are best left ignored.

What role do digital systems play in the training optimization of professional athletes? Can private users learn anything from them?

Digital sensors play an increasingly important role for training documentation and management in professional sport. But a fitness tracker on your wrist isn’t going to improve your athletic performance on its own. You have to do something too!

Even Professional Athletes are Using Digital Training Aids

Just as digital technology helps amateur athletes of all performance and training levels, it has also long been established in professional sport. For example, climbing solution climbtrack projects previously saved climbing routes and the previously recorded movements of the athlete on the walls of climbing halls. “The climbed routes are recognized by the system and saved into the personal fitness log for subsequent analysis,” explains Felix Kosmalla, Co-Founder of climbtrack. “By tracking the routes climbed, the user can improve themselves on their own individual level.”

“Blended learning” is the term that characterizes such combinations of digital technology and analog movement. And what helps individual climbers is naturally also of interest for team sports. Australian firm SPT’s “­GameTraka” offers a tracking system for entire soccer, American football, rugby or ­hockey teams. Each player carries an approximately 80-gram sensor unit that logs the player’s position on the pitch, their movements, running distances and other data. Additional sensors installed around the pitch perimeter deliver data such as ball possession, shots on goal and other similar metrics. The actual intelligence, however, is in the corresponding analysis software that helps guide strategy and optimize teamwork with so-called “heatmaps” that describe who was where on the pitch and for how long.

Digitalization and self-tracking have multiplied the opportunities that we have to manage and improve our own health. Photo: Fotolia – Robert Kneschke

The tracking of movement and health data has much greater implications than just improving athletes’ performance. This is the declaration of Jeanette Huber, Associate Director of the Future Institute, based in Frankfurt and Vienna: “Health has been declared as something that each of us must take responsibility for as individuals.” Healthiness and knowledge of health have become a social expectation. Digitalization and self-tracking have multiplied the opportunities that we have to manage and improve our own health. This also has day-to-day consequences in healthcare. Nils B. Heyen, Director of the Quantified Self Project at the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research notes that doctors are increasingly needing to adjust to a new type of patient: “Through self-tracking, such patients bring with them in-depth knowledge of their own health markers and the data to back this. Medical staff must then help to evaluate this data correctly.”

Help from professional medical staff is indispensable, as not all trackers meet the quality standards required. Fernando E. Hardasmal, Managing Director of the DEKRA Testing & Certification unit elaborates: “For this reason, we test and certify wearables such as smartwatches and fitness trackers. If people are using these to optimize their lifestyles and athletic training, they must be able to be completely confident that their smartwatch or fitness tracker will reliably connect to their smartphone, function safely and be impervious to external disruptions. It must also not disrupt any other nearby devices.” His department performs such tests for Finnish manufacturers Polar and Suunto. There is another important aspect: The sensitive data must be stored securely, be it on the device itself, in the app or on the corresponding platform.

High Potential for Abuse of Fitness Data

Individuals’ health data is a very tempting prospect for third parties. Insurers, banks and employers may be very interested in discovering their customers’ or employees’ digitally harvested and saved health and fitness data. Insurers such as Generali already offer their customers discounts on life and disability insurance if they can prove their healthy lifestyle by using wearables. Data security specialists warn of the potential for misuse and negative consequences thereof for users. Legislators are encouraged to protect users’ rights with regulatory frameworks.

And these are “just” the hazards for individuals. In his book “Das metrische Wir” (Quantified Us), Professor for Macrosocio­logy at the Humboldt University Berlin Steffen Mau warns that nowadays, everybody is comparing themselves with everybody else. Income, daily steps, Facebook likes – the eternal competition is undermining our solidarity with one another. “A society quantified is a society easily divided,” writes Mau. When considering all the positive effects on fitness and health, society should therefore also consider the downsides and risks of self-quantification, and endeavor to quickly counteract any negative ­aberrations.

Special Wristwatch: Goal Line Technology at 2018 World Cup

Schiedsrichterin Bibiana Steinhaus mit einer Spezial-Armbanduhr, die gültige Tore signalisiert. Foto: Tobias Schwarz/AFP/Getty Images

Referee Bibiana Steinhaus` special wristwatch signals valid goals. Photo: Tobias Schwarz/AFP/Getty Images

In European soccer leagues such as the German Bundesliga or the Spanish “La Liga,” so-called instant replay technology has long been in use. It is now to be employed at the 2018 Football World Cup in Russia. The International Football Association Board (IFAB) adopted it in March 2018 into the World Cup rules – for unclear goal decisions, offside situations, red cards and penalties. Since the 2014 World Cup, goal-line technology such as GoalRef, Hawk-Eye and GoalControl-4D has been permitted. GoalRef was developed by the German Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits.

That’s how the special clock for referees works. Source: Fraunhofer IIS

Sensors localize the ball using a magnetic field, which is generated by inductors built into the football itself. The Hawk-Eye and GoalControl systems employ high-speed cameras to monitor the goal area, digital image analysis determines the ball position. They can both be combined with GoalRef as back-up and for communication to the referee.

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