Here's the one problem with wearables that we all need to fix

Here's the one problem with wearables that we all need to fix

Summary: Wearables are starting to win me over, but having "lost" my Fitbit One over the weekend, I realise there's a major problem with them...

Fitbit One
A Fitbit One. A cool little device. Just don't lose it.

Back in January this year, I bought a Fitbit One. If you don't know what that is, I'll explain. It's a little one-inch-by-half-an-inch slug of black plastic that measures how active you are.

You carry it on you and it keeps track of how much you walk, move about, etc. You can even wear it at night and it'll track the amount and quality of your sleep.

It is really cool, but I used it for about a month and then lost interest. At the time, I was in traditional "lazy geek" mode -- i.e. I wasn't getting much exercise and I felt pretty neutral about the benefit it was providing.

However, about eight weeks ago I got a place on next year's London Marathon, so I've been a bit more interested in keeping track of my activity and I've started using it again.

And then I lost it. In the sense that I had a Fitbit, and then I didn't have one any more.

Which got me to thinking about a problem with wearables.


At the moment, I use (wear?) two wearable devices -- a Pebble smartwatch, and the erstwhile Fitbit.

The only frustration with the Pebble is that I keep forgetting to charge it. But at least I actually strap it onto me. Not so much with the Fitbit, which just has to live in one of my pockets. It's so small and light that it's easy to lose. If my keys fell out of my pocket, I'd notice that. If my Fitbit did -- no chance.

Case in point, it might be the case that you sit down in McDonalds with a Fitbit, smartphone, keys, and wallet, and then you get home you discover that you no longer have a Fitbit.

Wearables necessarily need to be small and light, otherwise no one is going to want to wear them. They have to be forgettable, which increases the chance that you can forget them.

Wearables have a lot of problems that need to be overcome -- the most important being the issue making them compelling and useful to ordinary people doing ordinary things. (The Fitbit does do a rather good job of that, to be fair.) But the problem of safeguarding any investment such that the careless owner (me in this instance) doesn't keep losing them surely has to be up there.

Just in case the outcome of what happened to my Fitbit is causing you too much emotional discomfort, shall I tell you where I found it? It wasn't in McDonald's -- despite me going back with an iPad trying to make it sync, a bit like how back in the olden times we used to do water divination with a stick. It was actually at home, under a pile of other stuff. I hadn't lost it at all. Don't ask.


"Quantified self" devices, like the Fitbit, divide themselves into a number of groups. Some of those groups need light in order for them to be functional. A smartwatch needs to be seen so that you can read its display. A lifelogging device, like Narrative, need to see what's around it so that it can take photos.

If it doesn't need light, why not swallow it? (Do I need to say, "don't try this at home"?) That approach is highly convenient to begin with, but if you follow it to it's, uh, natural conclusion you may either have an issue with the constituent rare earth metals ending up in the sewage system, or you may have an issue with stopping the constituent rare earth metals from ending up in the sewage system.

If you don't fancy swallowing it, why not fit your wearable subdermally? Sure, you'd need to have a little surgical procedure, but from there it'd be easy to charge (think conductive charging like Qi charging pads), and easy to get data from it (think Bluetooth Low Energy).

Let's assume those ideas are a way off, is there anything you can do today to keep your "unattached wearables" with you at all times?

There are in the market today a tonne of products that offer to keep your stuff around you -- the idea being that you attach some form of tag and you'll either be alerted if they go outside of a given range. Kensington's Proximo Proximity Monitoring System is one system; the crowdsourced Tile is another.

But the obvious problem with both of these is that they are too big. The tags associated with both of those systems are way bigger than my Fitbit.

An answer

Is there a possible software answer to all this? I think there is.

The Proximo system that I mentioned above works by attaching physical tokens to things that you want to keep in range. That presupposes that what you want to keep isn't an active device. Put more simply, your keys, bag, teddy bear, etc don't run Bluetooth.

Virtually every wearable technology does and will continue to do so going forward. So why not create a software standard for tracking wearable devices? Why do we need to have all this clever widgetry when all you need is an app together with some agreed way for all these devices to behave?

I should just be able to buy a Pebble, or a Fitbit, or a Narrative, or a whatever and the app and devices work together to stop me from losing stuff.

What I want though is not one set of options in the Pebble sync app, another in the Fitbit sync app, and so on. I want it either standardised in the smartphone OS, or as an app that acts as a standard.

It's not rocket science. Unless you're using it track parts for a rocket, in which case it may be.

What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.

Topics: Mobility, Smartphones

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • What an amazing revelation...

    ...that one can actually LOSE small items. Who knew?

    Seriously? You needed to devote an entire article to this drivel? Must be a slow news week.
  • A friend attached his fitbit to his watch

    A friend ended up washing one in the laundry and when he replaced it, found a small holder for it that attached to his watch strap. It seems to work for him. I have an UP bracelet and I haven't lost mine yet. I hear Jawbone has a new wireless device -- you might want to check that out
  • Hmmm

    The major flaw of wearables in this case seems to be the personal challenges of the author.
  • Simple solution

    The solution to this quandary is simple:

    We need smart watches that never need charging and small devices that can never be lost because they follow you around wherever you are.

    Now, "hold on," I hear you saying: "How can there be a smart watch that needs no charging? Doesn't something like that consume energy? Wouldn't it violate the laws of physics to create a device like a smart watch that doesn't require energy?"

    Well, yes... in *this world.* But imagine a world in which it didn't... a world in which your smart watch, not only didn't require chargeing, but had terabytes of built-in memory and a built-in pico projector that could project an image as bright and large as a commercial movie theater. Now imagine that in this world, all your gadgets are always with you. You never need to worry about misplacing them, because they slide over to you at the clap of your hands. Imagine also, that in this world you didn't have to be fat, or ugly or bald because you could choose your body from a catalog, and swap bodies at will.

    All this is possible: the only thing we'd need to do is create a massive computer simulation of such a world, then remove our brains from our bodies and plug them into feeding tubes that keep them alive and into the circuits that feed us this illusory reality.

    It would be awesome!
    • That would work until ...

      Some of the virtual people in this virtual world become oppressive of other virtual people, requiring a virtual hero to arise and fight to break people out of the virtual world into the real world.

      Somehow that sounds familiar ...
  • sigh . . .

    "the most important being the issue making them compelling and useful to ordinary people doing ordinary things. "

    . . . and then you suggest swallowing/surgery. Seriously?

    Swallowing of course doesn't solve the problem - you just lose it again in about a day.

    Surgery seems a bit of an extreme solution, and doesn't go over well with a lot of people.

    To be honest, I don't see what the big deal is anyways. I don't see wearables as being particularly useful.
  • ...

    "If my keys fell out of my pocket, I'd notice that."

    So clip the damn thing to your keyring. Problem solved.
  • Pockets with flaps and zippers or buttons

    All you need is not a device that you can't lose but places to put them that they can't escape from. Keys are on a carabiner hooked to belt loop. Cargo pants with zippered pockets for cell phone, cable, usb key, pill container, sucrose tabs and blood tester, wallet and thing to check my heart rate. Our devices don't need to be made to find themselves, we need to use existing low tech ways to not lose them.
    I have been using wearable tech, medical devices, for years and so I just do the same with the new tech (phone, tablet) as I did always. Now some people think that it ruins their look. Fine, your look costs as much as your tech so decide which you want, tech always ready or tech lost. I must be getting old because I go for comfort and function over chic. I don't give fashion advice I give tech advice. Sometimes low tech (closing pockets) works better than high tech (tracking software.)
    • Actually, once the wearable gadget is secure,

      it could be used to prevent the loss of your too-big-to-wear gadget. For example, if you use a smart WATCH as a voice input-output extension and auxiliary display for your smart PHONE (so that you can leave your phone in a pocket except when you need to take it out), the watch could sound an alarm when it lost connection to the phone. Since this would normally occur when you about to leave it behind (at a restaurant, for example), but while you are still in the same room, it would alert you to go back and get it. And if the PHONE starts to sound an alarm when the watch RECONNECTS, that would help you find it if something is on top of it (or it is already in someone else's pocket).

      Microsoft, Google and Apple: think about it.
  • Use Bluetooth LE to find wearables

    Most wearables use Bluetooth LE, which you can use to locate them when they're lost but nearby. The Fitbit Finder app worked for me. It’s iPhone-only though.