Is the Fitbit Sense the complete health smartwatch?

Fitbit sense smartwatch

Are smartwatches becoming table stakes for modern health? Chatting with Fitbit’s VP of product, Larry Yang, about the new Fitbit Sense.

Arguably the first smartwatch was invented in 1927 … you could buy little map scrolls and find your way around. The first digital watch came out in 1972 … calculator watches in the 1980s … and fitness trackers on your wrist launched in the early 2010s … including Fitbit.

Apple Watch launched 2015, and now about 1 in 4 wear a smartwatch and/or a fitness tracker. Now Fitbit is launching the Fitbit Sense … which is widely viewed as a full-on assault on the Apple Watch.

In this episode of TechFirst with John Koetsier, we dive into health and smartwatches and get the story behind the Fitbit Sense …

Get the full audio, video, and transcript of our conversation below …

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John Koetsier: Are smartwatches becoming table stakes for modern health? Welcome to TechFirst with John Koetsier. 

Arguably the first smartwatch was invented in 1927, you could buy this little map scroll, put it on your wrist and find your way around. First digital watches of course came out in the seventies, 1972. And you had calculator watches in the 1980s which you could sort of define as somewhat smart, I guess. Fitness trackers on your wrist launched in the 2010s, including Fitbit. And Apple Watch finally launched in 2015.

Today about 1 in 4 in North America wear a smartwatch and/or a fitness tracker, one of the two, or a combined device, and Fitbit just launched the Fitbit Sense which is widely viewed as a full on assault on the Apple Watch. To dive into health, smartwatches, and get the full story behind the Sense, we’re going to chat with Larry Yang, who is the VP of Product and Devices at Fitbit. Larry, welcome! 

Larry Yang: Hey, thanks, John. Super excited to be here.

John Koetsier: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for being here as well. Let’s start on a personal note. What fitness tech do you use? 

Larry Yang: Ah, what do I like to use? Well certainly I, first and foremost, love to use my Fitbits. As sort of an insider I get to advance…  

John Koetsier: On brand. Good, good. 

Larry Yang: I’m often seen wearing multiple ones. People are wondering what kind of weirdo I am, putting all these devices on. But you know, to be honest, I’m not like a marathon runner. I’m not like a crazy workout freak.

But what I love about, you know, Fitbits and any sort of fitness devices is as kind of the casual workout. You know, I’ll go running on the weekends, I’ll try to do stretching, and mini yoga and meditation during the week. It’s sort of just right, if you will, in the sweet spot. It’s what I need to help keep me motivated, to know that I’m on track, and know that I’m making progress.

Sleep tracking as well, you know, I always, busy Silicon Valley people we never have good sleep habits. So having tools to remind you it’s time to go to bed, time to get off that smartphone … also super helpful. 

John Koetsier: Good, good, good. So talk about the new Sense. What was the goal? And what are you trying to deliver to the market here? 

Larry Yang: Yeah, when we started thinking about our next generation watch, we knew we wanted to expand more into the health space. It was something our users have told us. It’s something that in our advanced research team we’ve been working on.

So we asked ourselves, well, what would it take to create our most advanced health watch? And so we figured it came down to three areas we had to deliver.

The first one is around temperature sensing and temperature health. The second one is around heart health. And the third area is around stress management.

And so around the temperature health, when you think about health, people often, especially in this day and age, think about their temperature and what’s going on, and is it normal or is it not. And so we put a temperature sensor on Sense and we give the user insights on how their temperature might be varying from their baseline to kind of give them a little bit more data, if you will, to help them think about is there more, is there something going on with their body. 

John Koetsier: Mm-hmm.

Larry Yang: So the second area is around heart health. We were already working on a new version of our heart rate sensor. We’re calling that Pure Pulse 2.0, so we felt that was important to roll out. It uses multiple paths of light sensors, of LED sensors to be able to get a better accurate read, especially as you’re exercising, as the watch moves around on your wrist.

We can get multiple paths going and do better error rejection, and make sure we get our most accurate heart reading. On top of that, we added the ability to alert you if your resting heart rate is abnormally high or abnormally low.

And then in countries where it will be available, we’re rolling out the ability to do a spot check ECG and detect atrial fibrillation. So that’s around our heart health.

And then a third area is the area we are most excited about, is around stress management. So, not only do we have a new world’s first sensor that measures electrodermal activity, these are like tiny changes in the electrical activity on your skin that changes, you know, if you’re up in front of a big group giving a speech, or you’re about to do something you’ve never done before.

John Koetsier: Doing a live stream. 

Larry Yang: Doing a live stream … your palms start to sweat, for a lot of people. That’s your body’s EDA response, if you will, and so our sensor can detect that. So while you’re doing a meditation, if you like suddenly start thinking about grocery shopping, or it’s an anxiety about some event that’s happening, we will detect that and give you that feedback that your meditation is maybe not as effective, you’re not staying as calm as you should be.

And next time you do it, try to focus a little more and give you that feedback that really helps improve your meditation practice. But more than just a sensor on device, we also give you a lot of insights around your overall stress management score, your body’s ability to manage stress on a day-to-day basis.

We also ask you to log your mood, so we’re tracking your own perception of your stress, of your mental stress over time. And then we give you content and insights and recommendations on how to act on those responses.

So unlike a lot of other companies that only give you one thing, like they give you a number and then they leave it up to you, or they give you a library of meditation content but then there’s no feedback on it. We have a complete end-to-end solution around stress management that we think is very unique. So those are the three big areas that we felt was important to be able to deliver on an advanced health watch. 

John Koetsier: Pretty interesting, because you see a lot of solutions that are out there, right? And obviously you have the Apple Watch, you’ve got others as well. Some focus on more fitness, some are workout entirely focused. Some are specific workout focused, right, for runners or bikers or swimmers or something like that.

Let’s talk about Fitbit Sense competitively. What is the Apple Watch missing that Fitbit Sense offers? 

Larry Yang: Yeah, I think the capabilities that we’re most proud of, you know, I talked about the stress management capabilities. We’ve had sleep stages and sleep score for a long time now. We’ve been building that on our 13 years of building fitness trackers and putting things on people’s wrists to give them insights on their fitness and health.

So, building on that, we have all of the sleep stages, we have a 6-day battery life. I tell people like the most important feature of a wearable is that it’s worn. And so if you have to take it off every day to charge it, there’s a good chance that you’re gonna forget, you’re gonna leave it at home, it’s not on at night, so you can’t gather the sleeps. So if it’s worn, then you can get that. And probably the most important thing to make sure it’s worn is that it has a long lasting battery.

We think the pricing is very approachable. Like you said, there’s a lot of these niche sort of advanced things, but for people like me that just, you know, I just want to stay healthy, you know, I’m not going to go run a marathon. That approachable price is important. And you know, not to mention that a good chunk of our users are Android users. 

John Koetsier: Mm-hmm.

Larry Yang: Android users really just don’t have the ability to use an Apple Watch. And then I’d say add on top of all of that, we have our whole Premium service. We have over 500,000 paying subscribers now whose users get additional insights. I like to think of them as the data curious people.

So we’ll show you a bunch of metrics for kind of the DIY, but then for the Premium users, we give you the additional data, the additional insights, so they can probe further and learn more about what their body’s doing. 

John Koetsier: Well, that’s super interesting and I want to dive into that, ’cause it’s a big miss in Apple’s platform right now.

But I’ve had an Apple Watch since, sheesh, it’s gotta be version three now, I think, and the worst part probably is the battery life, right. You know, there’s, even if I wanted to wear a piece of metal and glass on my wrist to bed and risk injuring my wife as I thrash around at night, I couldn’t. I simply could not wear it at night because it has to charge, and it needs, I don’t know, half an hour, an hour, hour and a half of charge time every 24 hours. I think I can probably go about 18 hours without charging, but obviously that’s not enough for a full day and a night.

How on earth are you fitting six days of battery life in? 

Larry Yang: Yeah, you know, like I alluded to earlier, we’ve had 13 years of engineering and head start on this and we’ve been putting battery constraint products on your wrist. I think, you know, I can’t go to a lot of our secret sauce, but I think …  

John Koetsier: I want all the details right now and the patent numbers as well, haha. 

Larry Yang: A lot of it is just being very smart based on our multiple iterations. So like, I’ll just say the radio, I’ll just pick as an example. So, having the Bluetooth radio, WiFi radio, those are important for a connected device, but it’s also important to be very judicious when you turn it on. Like, just turn it on, exchange the data you need, turn it off.

We’ve seen on some of our other competitor products that they’re kind of aggressive, if you will, in turning the radio on to try to connect and do something. We’ve sort of taken an opposite approach. It’s like, we’re just going to minimize how much we need the radio, do as much as we can on-wrist, get the data size down, and only exchange data when you need it.

So that’s just one example, I’m sure we can get an engineer on and go into the links about all the other things that we are doing. But, just being very careful, measuring every micro amp and budgeting it judiciously. We spend a ton of time, there’s giant spreadsheets we have on like trying to make trade-offs on all these things. 

John Koetsier: Ah, that sounds like fun. Everybody loves giant spreadsheets. So, I used to use a Fitbit and I enjoyed it, and I had some of the similar circumstances that you had. I would wear 3 or 4 at a time. There was a time when I — I was full time at VentureBeat at the time and I was testing multiple fitness gadgets — and I wore 3 or 4 for maybe a week or something like that, and just to see, okay, do they all count steps the same way?

And pretty much it was a step counter at that point, right. We’re talking some years ago, and what else do they know? What do they not know? Those sorts of things. But if you look at marketshare, obviously Apple Watch is huge.

What’s the pitch for people who have gone to an Apple Watch, who may have started their fitness band journey with a Fitbit, to come back?

Larry Yang: Mm-hmm. Yeah, I think you touched on something interesting. It’s like in the early days it was all about step counting, and I think our product has evolved way beyond that. So, you know, I’ve talked about the sleep tracking, being able to give you all the insights on your sleep. I mean, who doesn’t want a better night’s sleep, right?

So being able to get that data and the insights on how to get a better night’s sleep. Step counting is another one, so last spring we announced Active Zone Minutes. It’s a new way to score your activity, so it’s beyond counting steps is how we like to think about it, and so now you get credit for stationary bikes, for yoga, for other activities that you might love to do, but you’re just not a step-oriented person.

And so it’s aligned with what the American Heart Association recommends in number of minutes in certain elevated heart rates in order to get good heart health. And so we built on that and built a whole experience around that. And then, you know, we talked about Premium, so getting all of those additional insights.

And then last but not least, is again the battery life. Like if you’re not wearing it, then really what is that device telling you about your health and fitness? 

 John Koetsier: Very, very interesting. I mean, that is one of the most annoying things about a smartwatch. When you’re doing some fitness activity or some physical activity and you can’t track it properly.

My son plays high level baseball, so I do a lot of work in the batting cage with him and then some fielding practice as well and stuff like that. There’s no baseball workout, right? 

Larry Yang: There is not.

John Koetsier: There’s “other.” 

Larry Yang: I remember coaching my kid’s little league and you know, you think as a coach you’re just standing around and you’re like, just throwing the practice pitches and chasing balls and stuff. It’s a really good workout, for sure. 

John Koetsier: It is, it is. And it often is two hours or something like that as well. I wanted to ping back in on the subscription products, ’cause you mentioned that a couple times. And it’s something that the Apple ecosystem doesn’t have.

We see that with a couple of other competitors as well. It’s quite interesting — and I can’t ask you to comment on Apple obviously, that you’re not Apple — but it’s interesting that Apple has had a focus on services and has not come out with a health service. You’ve got a number of them. Who are they for? And what do they really do? 

Larry Yang: Yeah, I think they’re for the user who just wants to learn more, wants to get more insights, that sort of data curious I talked about, and really help them connect the dots.

So, you know, I have like a particular set of health metrics … my SpO2, my breathing rate, my heart rate variability. Well, what does that all mean? Can I see them all side by side? Can I get the connected insights, if you will?

That would be an example of the type of user who would really benefit from Fitbit Premium. 

John Koetsier: Mm-hmm.

Larry Yang: And we also have a rich library of content. So, just recently we did a thing with Ayesha Curry where she put a bunch of videos around cooking and workouts. Here in the Bay Area we have these fires going on, so the smoke has made it a little difficult for me to go out and run. So I’d stay indoors and I’d do the Ayesha Curry workouts, and those are really good workouts.

And so there’s a ton of these different exercises, cooking, meditation, sleeping tips and stuff like that. All of that content is available to our Premium subscribers. 

John Koetsier: What’s SpO2? 

Larry Yang: SpO2 is a measure of your oxygenation level in your blood and it’s the ability for your blood to absorb and keep oxygen. And as you know, oxygen is important for your body’s health. And so being…  

John Koetsier: Just a little, just a little. Yeah, I bring it up because of course we’re in COVID times right now, you’re in your home office. I’m in my home office, as per usual for the last decade. But blood oxygenation is a major factor in determining, hey, is somebody really suffering from COVID or is it not. Is it accurate enough to be able to tell you, hey, you’ve got an issue and you should go get checked out? 

Larry Yang: So we give you trends and sort of directional insights, if you will, on what your overnight SpO2 might’ve been when you’re sleeping. And we give you education information on what these numbers might mean. And, you know, ultimately if you’re worried, you should go see a health professional.  

John Koetsier: Mm-hmm. Okay. Interesting. Let’s broaden the conversation a little bit and go beyond devices. We do have kind of an unprecedented time in kind of health history here, really. Because we’ve got a quarter of the population walking around with a sensor package on their body.

Some of it, some is in your smartphone in terms of activity, obviously for different platforms, but more intensely if it’s on your wrist or on your finger — this is a smart ring, can measure a variety of different things as well. What’s the role of a smartwatch or these health sensing packages that we wear, wearable tech, in modern health.

Where do you see that right now? Where is it evolving? 

Larry Yang: I think, for me, one of the biggest differences is now you get more … I’d say continuity in your metrics. ‘Cause think about like the old days, if you will, where you’re feeling a little weird, you go see the doctor and what does the doctor do? The doctor takes your blood pressure, he takes your pulse, listens to your breathing. He’s like ‘I don’t see anything wrong’ and then they send you on your way, right?

And so that under sampling of data is, I think, hugely problematic for healthcare. And so now we’re getting more and more sort of continuous data, if you will. And that gives you and your health professional a little more information to work with to diagnose a potential problem.

Like for example, another benefit that our Premium subscribers get is this Wellness Report where it gives you kind of a summary of all of the metrics and insights that we’ve collected. You download the PDF, print it out, take it to your doctor’s appointments, sit down with your doctor. We’ve consulted with doctors on what kinds of reports are helpful, and now the doctor has just so much more information to work with. You can sit side by side. And it also empowers you to be a real partner in talking about your healthcare.

My brother in law and sister in law are doctors and they’re like, they were always wishing that there could be more continuous data or that the patients are more informed and can be a real partner. And that’s an example of how I think the technology that we’re working on really helps that. 

John Koetsier: That is really, really interesting because I’ve struggled with the data that a smartwatch can generate and how to bring that to a doctor. I once tried with my doctor, who’s a younger doctor and just, you know, it was too much information and there wasn’t an easy way to transmit it.

You can print out a sort of a download or an overview of a health overview, which is great and easy for somebody to digest. Be nice as well over time to be able to even feed that data continuously into some system that maybe has some AI capabilities and can see long term trends or patterns or other things like that over time.

But I think that’s a really interesting first step that you’ve made. 

Larry Yang: Mm-hmm.

John Koetsier: I wanted to hit on sleep tracking and it’s interesting, this smart ring that I’m wearing right now does have some sleep tracking capability and I’ve used it for that. How are you finding people are using Fitbit Sense or other devices that are already out in the market for sleep tracking?

And is that working when it’s wrist-based? Is that pretty accurate? And what are the, you know, kind of implications of wearing something like that, does that impact your sleep rhythms as well when you’ve got something on your wrist?

Larry Yang: Yeah, I think it’s our most engaging feature, if you will. So it’s definitely resonating very well. Our users check their sleep score and their sleep insights every day. And people love it.

And when we give you your sleep score, and we give you more breakdowns of the score, and just what it might mean for your day. We’ll give you a reminder as we start detecting or we work with you to decide, you know, when’s your ideal sleep… bedtime and give you a reminder, it’s like, ‘Hmm, probably time to wind down.’

We have wind down meditations to help you get into that. And so I think just all of the offerings are very popular and they really click very well with our users.

When you talked about the wearability, so one of our lead creative designers, he uses the term “pajamas for your wrist.” And so when our industrial design team is thinking about comfort and wearability, that’s kind of the mental model they have, it’s gotta be so comfortable it’s like you’re putting on pajamas.

And so we put a ton of work into the form factor, you know, the edges can’t be sharp. We try to really minimize, in fact eliminate, physical buttons so they’re not snagging on things. The bands themselves are soft and comfortable and wearable and flexible, and that type of thing. We do a ton of testing on all of that. So that, I mean it’s a great question, that is of course very top of mind. Like I said, the most important feature about a wearable is that it’s worn. If people can’t sleep with it, then we have failed. So just tons of work goes into thinking about that. 

John Koetsier: Yes. Well, Larry, I want to thank you for your time. It’s been really, really interesting.

Larry Yang: Thank you. I really enjoyed this chat. This was fun. 

John Koetsier: Awesome. Everybody else, thank you for joining us on TechFirst. My name, of course, is John Koetsier. I appreciate you being along for the show. You’ll be able to get a full transcript of this podcast in about a week at The full story on Forbes will come out just after that as well. And of course the video is available on my YouTube channel.

Until next time … this is John Koetsier with TechFirst.