Bonnie Cha

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Health-and-Fitness Tech Grows at CES, but Challenges Lie Ahead

I’ve been looking at a lot of people’s wrists lately. Not because I have some weird fetish or anything. I’m curious about whether wearable devices like the Nike+ FuelBand and Jawbone Up are really taking off.

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While that remains to be seen (I’ve only spotted about a dozen in the wild), it hasn’t stopped device manufactures and app developers from getting into the fitness-tech game.

Case in point: More than 220 companies will showcase their health-and-fitness products at International CES next week — a 30 percent increase over last year’s show, according to Consumer Electronic Association CEO Gary Shapiro.

Companies include Fitbit, Polar, and BodyMedia, which plans to introduce a waterproof patch. An Ohio startup called HealthSpot will be at CES showing off its HealthSpot station. Described as an “ATM for healthcare,” users will be able to walk into one of theses kiosks at a pharmacy or grocery store, input their symptoms and chat with a board-certified doctor via video conferencing for further advice.

“It’s definitely an active category at CES,” said Shapiro in a phone interview. “Health is everything, and technology can play a major role in making people more responsible and bringing healthcare costs down.”

Consumers have already seen tech as a more affordable solution and motivator for sticking to an exercise regimen and meeting their goals. A recent study by the CEA showed that more than half of online consumers used some kind of fitness tech in the past year, and analysts at Forrester Research expect usage to increase from the low single-digit millions to 10 million by the end of 2013.

“In order to be well, you need information and feedback, and that’s always been crucial, even before the digital era,” said James McQuivey, analyst at Forrester Research. “Now there is tech that can collect that data reliably and at a low cost.”

This tech includes more traditional devices like heart-rate monitors and pedometers, and newer tech, such as fitness video games, smartphone apps, and connected scales.

Brands like Nike and Jawbone have also brought attention to wearable devices, which use sensors to measure your activity, calories burned, how well you sleep and more. The collected information is then transfered to an app or Web dashboard where you can view your progress, set goals and share results with a larger social network.

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Nike says it’s this social interaction that’s attracting users to devices like the FuelBand. “People have always wanted motivation to be active, and now that same feeling of being on a team or training for your first 10K can happen daily through socially enabled, connected experiences like Nike+,” said Ricky Engelberg, experience director of digital sport at Nike.

Even so, I have my doubts about whether wearable devices will catch on. I had the original Fitbit , and while achieving my goals and earning new badges kept me motivated for a few weeks, I soon grew tired of having to take it on and off.

McQuivey agrees, and says wearable tech won’t be a trend, even if “a particular device from a particular vendor” might prove to be popular. But he does believe that fitness tech will continue to grow, and that the bigger challenge won’t be design but what to do with the data.

“The health implications of the data we’re collecting are tremendous,” said McQuivey. “We could meaningfully improve our understanding of many major diseases just by amassing this data in a central place where researchers and companies can have access to it. … But, so far, no one company has that database or even the beginnings of it.”

Shapiro had similar thoughts. “We’re shifting toward smaller, cheaper devices in a matter of months, and they’re getting better all the time,” he said. “But once they’ve gathered information, what do you with it? That’s where we still need progress. There are holes in the system.”

Perhaps one of those 220 companies at CES will have the answer. But I suspect that coming up with a solution that’s universal and doesn’t invade a person’s privacy will be debated for years to come.

International CES officially kicks off on Jan. 8 and runs through Jan. 11. AllThingsD will be in attendance starting on Sunday, so check back then for all the latest news and analysis.

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