Long-awaited Apple Watch tracks heart rate, activity, calories burned, but not sleep

By Jonah Comstock
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Apple Watch 1Apple made its long-awaited wearable announcement today at a special event in Cupertino, as well as showing off the iPhone 6 and the new, larger iPhone 6 plus. As expected, Apple put a significant focus on fitness and wellness for the wristworn device, which is actually called Apple Watch not iWatch. The Apple Watch did not emerge as the advanced-sensing health device some envisioned. The device is set to launch in early 2015 starting at $349.

In addition, a number of features of the iPhone 6 could have implications for healthcare in the future.

"Apple Watch gives us the ability to motivate people to be more active and healthy," Apple CEO Tim Cook said on-stage. "If you are someone who just wants to be a bit more active or someone who wants to track what you are doing during the day, or perhaps you exercise regularly, or even if you're a very serious athlete, Apple Watch helps you live a better day." 

The Apple Watch will track movement through a built-in accelerometer and heart rate through optical sensors in the back of the device. It will extrapolate further data from the GPS and WiFi on the user's iPhone, which (contrary to certain predictions) will be required to use many of the features of the device.

But while the sensors themselves aren't revolutionary, the Apple Watch software that makes use of their readings is novel -- and, notably, doesn't use steps or a virtual currency like Nike Fuel as its main metric. This software was introduced in a video by Jay Blahnik, who helped create Nike Fuelband. His new title at Apple is director of health, fitness technologies.

In the initial built-in app suite there will be two apps: an Activity app for tracking day to day movement and a Workout app for more serious exercisers. A companion Fitness app on the iPhone will aggregate data from both apps, and share them into the already announced Health app.

Apple fitness appThe Fitness app will present a visual display for goal-tracking made up of three interlocking rings. One ring, called Move will measure calories and will be based on a personal goal set by the user. Another, called the Exercise ring, will measure active minutes, defined as time spent on anything over a brisk walk.

Most interesting is the Stand ring, which very simply tracks whether or not the user stands for at least a minute each hour of the day -- a play on the oft-repeated fitness aphorism "sitting is the new smoking."

"The Stand ring shows how often you have stood up to take a break from sitting, which helps you minimize your sedentary time," Blahnik said in a video shown at the event. "This may seem like a small thing, but sitting less can go a long way towards improving your health."

The Workout app is more like a traditional running app. It will allow the user to select from a list of activities like running, walking, and cycling and then set a goal based on distance, time, calories, or heart rate. All the historical workout data is stored within the Watch and, of course, shared with Apple's new Health app. Both the fitness and workout apps deliver personalized motivational messages.

"Over time Apple Watch actually gets to know you the way a good personal trainer would," Blahnik said in the video. "It is designed to deliver intelligent reminders to keep you motivated and on track. It can suggest goals that are personal, realistic, and most important, achievable, which gives you a far better chance of succeeding."

Beyond that, the company announced WatchKit, a set of developer tools for building apps on the device. Unsurprisingly, one of the showcased third party apps is an Apple Watch running app from Nike.

The iPhone 6, announced earlier in the presentation, will come with a new M8 chip that will spell improvements in the iPhone's native step-tracking abilities. Using a built-in barometer, the phone will be able to estimate altitude from changes in air pressure and return that data to the user in the form of an equivalent number of steps climbed. A new Nike running app will take advantage of that altitude data, Apple announced at the event.

Apple Watch fitnessThe heart rate sensor on the Apple Watch won't just be used for fitness purposes. Apple Watch users can send their heart rate to one another in the form of an animated emoji that beats in time with the user's actual heart. And using the device's haptic feedback, the receiver can even virtually "feel" the other person's heart rate.

Several other announced features of the iPhone 6 could have future telemedicine implications. The new camera on the device will have a number of upgrades that could make photography of wounds and skin blemishes easier. Auto-focus and auto-stabilization (including the optical image stabilization on the iPhone 6 plus) address some of the biggest technical problems in store and forward telemedicine today. Even the FaceTime app, now supported by a front-facing HD camera, could improve video visits.

One of the big announcements of the day, Apple Pay, shows Apple's dedication to security and privacy, which is likely to be echoed both in their enterprise healthcare applications developed with IBM and, increasingly, on consumer health apps going forward. With Apple Pay, users can make electronic payments without Apple seeing what they bought, who they bought it from, or how much they paid. And the cashier doesn’t see the user's name, credit card number or security number. The promise had shades of Apple's recent ban on future HealthKit developers from selling data collected via the platform to third party data aggregators or targeted advertising systems.

While Apple never officially stated the Watch's battery life, the expectation is that users will charge it at night while they sleep. Almost every wristworn activity tracker device on the market offers at least a simplistic form of sleep tracking, but because of its advanced general features and more demanding power requirements, the Apple Watch doesn't track sleep.