Not on my watch


The flurry of smartwatch purchases during Black Friday had me scratching absent-mindedly on my wrist searching for my Fitbit. I had stopped using my Fitbit due to a snapped band. The band is regrettably is almost irreplaceable – a really silly design flaw! Needing another watch, I started investigating what to buy and what value these smartwatches have in our lives, in the first place.

The always-on, always-connected word, has introduced biomedical possibilities to us through now termed smartwatches. We can now use these digital devices to continually monitor our medical health. This introduces amazing possibilities to the medical fraternity. Remember how your cardiologist performs an ECG on you to determine the state of your heart? This required a visit to the doctor. Now it can be done through your watch and continually.

The Apple watch has reached cult status with its heart rate sensor as well as its life-saving electrocardiogram app. It has already saved the life of a least half-a-dozen people. Adam Love, 24 for instance found that his heart rate raced to 140 beats per minute (bpm) from a usual 60 bpm. A routine medical check found a hole-in-his-heart, a condition which eluded detection since his birth. To further espouse the digital world, Love’s corrective surgery was actually performed by a 3D robot named DaVinci!

Kevin Pearson, 52 was calmly reading a book, while waiting for his dad at the local hospital undertaking what he believed to be sedentary activity. His watch urgently started beeping informing him of irregular heartbeat of 161 bpm. It helped that he was at a hospital and he shyly asked a health practitioner for a quick checkup blaming his watch! The intrigued medic decided to examine him and discovered an abnormal heart condition called atrial fibrillation, which could have been fatal!

Ed Dentel, 46 was sitting at home experimenting with his Apple and downloaded the ECG app, which promptly went ballistic. He ignored it. The next day he tried the watch again and once again the watch reacted. He finally went to the doctor, who informed him that the device had saved his life! The Apple’s fall detector mode also saved Toralv Ostvang’s life when he fell in his bathroom. The fall detector automatically called local emergency services when he did not move for a minute. The emergency service found and saved an unconscious patient covered in blood.

The original goal of smartwatches was behavioral to motivate people to take control and improve their fitness and health. These devices have since evolved into the technology arsenal which detectives use to solve crimes, together with videos, GPS devices and cellphones and surveillance cameras and the Internet of Things. As Hauser of the New York Times asserts “Fastened to a person’s body, the devices have a unique front-row seat to their hosts’ lives, inadvertently documenting both mundane and perilous encounters as they record heartbeats, sleeping patterns and physical exertion.”

The Fitbit has now become a silent FactByte as the not-so-lucky Jane Slater’s now very much ex-boyfriend discovered. She relates on Twitter that her boyfriend bought her a Fitbit and they synced and linked their respective devices to motivate and keep track of each other. This naturally implied location tracking and movement as well. He was not at home one 4am morning yet his physical activity was spiking on the app. This was not quite the syncing Slater had in mind and she found he was cheating on her. As Slater expanded “Spoiler alert: he was not enrolled in an Orange Theory class at 4am”, either. Did his luck time out?

FBI investigators carefully examined geolocated and time-lined data from the Fitbit of Mollie Tibbetts, a 20-year-old student who went missing for about a month before her body was discovered. Surveillance video led them to a 24-year-old man who was charged with murder. A Fitbit’s unique proximity on Connie Dabate’s wrist rendered it a silent witness which faithfully recorded the final and eventual fatal moments of her murder in the USA. Her husband blamed an intruder. The Fitbit data however correctly fingered her husband. The human ability to ingeniously repurpose and ever expand on the functionality of new technology continues to inspire even confound us.


Dr Colin Thakur is DUT’s BankSeta and InSeta Research Chair as well as the NEMISA e-Skills CoLab Director. The views expressed are his own.