In case you haven't heard, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey recently returned from a 10-day meditation retreat in Myanmar where he practiced extreme self-abnegation: "no devices, reading, writing, physical exercise, music, intoxicants, meat, talking, or even eye contact with others," he tweeted after returning home.

But hang an asterisk on the "no devices" part because it turns out Dorsey was wearing not one but two devices throughout: his Apple Watch and a sensor-packed ring called Oura, which records inputs including heart rate, body temperature, and movement. Tweeting the (impressive!) data from one of his meditation sessions, Dorsey took pains to note he kept the devices "both in airplane mode." That didn't keep a goodly number of his 4.1 million followers from LOLing at the idea of a billionaire tech CEO bringing the tools of the Quantified Self on his journey toward anatta, the Buddhist ideal of "no self."  

Jack, I feel you. For the past five years, I've worn a Fitbit smartwatch around the clock, tracking my movements and heart beats while at work, in bed, on my bike, and even, occasionally, in meditation. A few months ago, I also started wearing the Oura, which I've been using primarily to analyze my sleep quality and its effects on my energy levels.

But recently, when it came time to charge them, I hesitated. Instead of pulling their chargers out of my nightstand, I took off the watch and the ring and tossed them in the drawer. And I have to say, I don't miss them.

Wearable biometric devices are quickly entering the mainstream. A new forecast from eMarketer says the number of U.S. adults who wear a smartwatch will cross 10 percent in 2019, while one in five internet users will own some kind of wearable.

Yet the category has long suffered a "so what?" problem. The standard knock is wearable trackers give you data that's mildly interesting but ultimately irrelevant. After a few weeks or months, the novelty of knowing your step totals or resting heart rate wears off--even faster if you know much about how inaccurate those numbers can be. That's why user churn has been such a persistent problem for companies in this space, or so the theory goes.

I see it somewhat differently. The value proposition of fitness trackers is real; it's just awfully front-loaded. When I started wearing a Fitbit, I was shocked to find out how few steps I took on low-activity days. I noticed how much better my energy was on days when I broke up long periods of sitting with walks and altered my habits accordingly.

The Oura was even more of a wake-up call. While it lacks the multifunctionality of a smartwatch, it makes up for it with smartly presented biometric insights and suggestions. The device combines data from its various sensors to generate a daily sleep score and a "readiness" score that's a measure of fatigue versus freshness. Looking at the breakdowns, you can see things like how much deep sleep versus REM sleep you got the night before, how that compares with your weekly or monthly average, and what each means to your overall well-being. (Deep sleep, I learned, is crucial for muscle rejuvenation and repair, while REM sleep is more important for creative thinking.) The Oura also tracks heart rate variability, a measure of how responsive your heart's rhythms are to stimuli; high HRV indicates a well-rested central nervous system.

Just a few days of wearing the Oura made me realize I should be thinking less about how many hours I spend sleeping and more about sleep quality. Tinkering with my nighttime habits in response to its suggestions, I quickly noticed how much more restorative sleep I got, particularly in the first half of the night, if I ate dinner earlier and limited alcohol consumption to one drink. Other changes I've made include an earlier bedtime and setting my devices to switch to "night mode," which filters out blue light, after 8 p.m.

All this took me a few weeks to figure out. Once my new habits were in place, though, there wasn't much more for the Oura to do. I continued checking my stats every morning, but that, too, was just a new habit. Now that I knew what internal signals to pay attention to, I didn't need an app to let me know when I'd slept deeply or awakened feeling especially fresh.

Then I got a demo of a new sleep-tracking device made by a startup named Beddr. Their SleepTuner is designed to determine if the user is at risk for sleep apnea, a common sleep dysfunction in which the sleeper briefly stops breathing. Whereas the Oura's unobtrusive design encourages daily use, the Beddr device affixes by adhesive to the forehead. That's OK, CEO Mike Kisch told me, because the startup wants people to use it for a couple weeks at a time, to "tune" their sleep, not year-round. "Our view is you're overdoing it with nightly tracking," he said.

That resonated with my experience. If the point of a wearable tracker is to help you form better habits, then a tracker that does its job well enough should render itself unnecessary. Otherwise, it's just collecting a bunch of data that's of obvious value to the company at the cost of the device owner.

I ran this thought by Harpreet Rai, Oura's CEO, and he agreed with it, up to a point. "I feel like all trackers today are providing data after the fact. Where we need to go is helping people implement things," he said. Oura just raised $20 million in venture funding, with Michael Dell leading the round, and plans to put much of the money toward providing smarter and more actionable insights.

Rai did offer a couple reasons the average civilian might want to maintain daily tracking in the meantime. For one thing, habits are easier to form than to maintain; daily feedback can help with adherence. He also believes it won't be long before the medical system begins making widespread use of wearable-generated data, at which point having a deep longitudinal data set might get you a discount on your insurance rates (assuming you're healthy; if not, it could drive your premiums up).

I buy that. For certain populations, full-time wearables already make sense; an elderly person living alone could certainly benefit from the new Apple Watch's fall detection feature.

And I can't say I don't miss my wearables at all. Getting text messages on my wrist was a nice way to spend less time with my phone. The Oura's HRV data and readiness score came in handy when I undertook a recent fitness challenge; I'll absolutely use it when I have another one.

But for now, I'm enjoying the feeling of being able to pack for vacation without a bag full of charging cables--and I'm not even going to a Buddhist monastery.  

Published on: Dec 13, 2018