Health & Fitness

Valencell President: 2016 Is the Year of the Wearable

An interview with the man in the middle of the wearables market.

Credit: Valancell

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Valencell may not be a household name, but you have probably heard of some of their products—or, more accurately, some of their licensees.

Valencell isn’t your typical wearables company. As a development and licensing service, they license highly accurate biometric sensor technology to other companies—companies like ATLAS, Jabra, Scosche, and even LG.

That position in the supply chain gives the company a unique perspective on the state of the wearables market. We had a chance to sit down with Valencell president Dr. Steven LeBoeuf to talk about the struggles and opportunities of the wearables space—and how, he thinks, we might have to wait until 2016 to see wearables begin to reach their full potential.

What is Valencell?

Valencell is a pioneer in the wearable biometric sensor space. We started our company in 2006, and that’s why we own so many patents about how you collect accurate signals from the body with devices that people already wear. We do a lot of R&D. We do a lot of prototyping, a lot of clinical validation, and then we license that technology to partners for their products. We help them with the hardware design, we help them with the software, and we also make sure that the products are clinically validated when they launch.

LG Heartrate Earphones

LG licenses the biometric technology for its Heartrate Earphones.

How important is accurate data for driving adoption in the wearables space?

I think the answer is in compelling use cases. You may have heard some stories about people questioning the value of some of these smartwatches. And I think the interesting thing is the use cases that weren’t viable until the sensor technology got it right.

Now that we have this very accurate sensor technology, what you’re going to see are wearables that go from just telling you a number to telling you which direction your fitness is going and why. So you’ll be able to know: Am I getting better, am I getting worse, or am I plateauing? And why? That, I think, is the big vision of where we want to go with biometric wearables.

"Activity tracking isn’t really biometric tracking, because it doesn’t tell you how it's affected your body."

What’s the difference between biometric wearables and regular wearables?

Before biometrics there were a lot of activity tracking devices, and activity tracking isn’t really biometric tracking, because when you measure activity it tells you what you’ve done but it doesn’t tell you how that’s affected your body. So the biometric part of it tells you about how your body is responding to what you’re doing. Not everybody needs to walk ten thousand steps, but everybody needs to be fit, and everybody’s a little bit different.

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How do you think this category is going to develop in the coming years?

I’m really excited about how people are going to roll technology like ours—but other technologies as well—into making really seamless experiences for people, whether they be earbuds with hearables, or whether they be wristwatches or armbands or whatever the form factor. It’s about how these things make health and fitness a seamless part of your life, where each day you know if you’re on the right track or the wrong track.

Jabra Sport Pulse

Jabra's Sport Pulse wireless headset uses Valencell's PerformTek biometric sensors.

Do you see Valencell as part of this larger trend of big data and aggregating health information in the cloud? Or is it something more native and personal?

A lot of people have come out in the last few years saying it’s not about the technology, it’s about the data. But what the does that mean? That doesn’t really mean anything. I think what it’s really about is people, and helping people achieve their health and fitness goals. That includes technology, it includes data, it includes hardware—so it’s a number of things.

I think the way we want it to go is where people can have personalized actionable information with accurate data. It needs to be accurate, because without accuracy it’s useless. It needs to be actionable because without action it’s powerless. And it needs to be completely seamless with your everyday life.

"The faddish trends are when people just want to give you numbers."

Obviously there’s a lot of competition and a lot of products in the field. How do you sift through all that noise to find out what’s a fad and what’s not?

The fad part is that so many devices now are also doing activity tracking. But just because you tell somebody a number doesn’t mean it will be interesting to them. It’s about: How do they really use it? How does it really affect their life? How does it affect their day.

PerformTek iPhone app

The PerformTek Biometric Tracking app for iPhone.

There are some companies now that are focusing on telling you what you need to do for that day based off a biometric reading—for you, that day. I think that’s a lot more interesting than just telling you a number. The faddish type of trends are when people just want to give you numbers. For example, some of these smartwatch companies just throw in a heart rate monitor into the device—just throw it in—and then don’t even tell you how to use it or what value it is. That to me is faddish.

The thing that will be mass consumer is when people can use the devices to truly improve their health and fitness. If you think about it, the sales are in the tens of millions. That’s a nice market, but it’s not a mass consumer market. Everybody owns a smartphone, but not everybody owns a wearable biometric device. So that is what I think takes it from fad into mass: when you really give people things they can use every day.

At last year's CES, everyone was talking about wearables as the most exciting technology at the show. We even predicted that 2014 would be a breakout year for the category. In some ways that’s come true, and in some ways it really hasn’t. Do you think 2015 will be any different? Do you think that this year's CES will be even more of a wearables show?

"I really don’t think 2015 is the big year. I think it’s 2016."

It will be more of a wearables show, but I do think that the real exciting time is not until 2016. And the reason is, now the technology is finally good enough to accurately measure what needs to be measured while people are living everyday lives. The use cases are just starting to line up, and you can use all that data for really compelling storyboards about people’s health and fitness.

It just needs to jive, and those things just take time. I have this saying, chemistry can be instantaneous, but biology takes time. And these things take time to merge together into really compelling experiences. So I really don’t even think 2015 is the big year. I think it’s 2016—when these technologies and the data combine towards a compelling use case.

SMS Audio Biosport In-Ear Wired Ear Bud with Heart Monitor

Certain PerformTek sensors, including those found in the SMS Audio Biosport earbuds, measure weak blood flow signals by shining light at the skin.

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