Quantified Self at SXSW 2013

Industry analysts at Altimeter, Chris Silva and Jeremiah Owyang, did a welcome overview post of the technology that mattered at SXSW this year. Welcome because nearly every other SXSW post I saw was about the parties and corporate concerts…although I have been extremely guilty of that too at past SXSWs! I didn’t miss going to SXSW this year, I was content to sit at home with my new cat and write my book. But I did wonder what – if any – technology made an impact at SXSW this year. So thanks Chris and Jeremiah for writing this post (hat-tip Marshall Kirkpatrick, whose Twitter a/c and blog post brought it to my attention).

Silva and Owyang identified Quantified Self – one of the main topics of my book – as a technology to “watch” this coming year. Of course I heartily agree with that. Here’s what they wrote about QS at SXSW 13:

“Last year Nike debuted FuelBand at SxSW, this year the technology was everywhere, including a show that quantified activity tracking and encouragement, including a hotly discussed show by Google Shoe that gave recommendations on your fitness activity.”

I did see coverage of the Google Shoe, which gives audio encouragement based on sensors (“Run faster!” etc). So yes, a talking shoe. I felt it was too gimmicky and, indeed, Google itself admitted that the shoe was “an experiment, as part of a broader marketing program, to spark conversations with brand marketers and agencies.” Did I mention I was glad not to be at SXSW this year?

Altimeter said this about where the QS market – specifically wearable fitness products like Nike FuelBand, Fitbit and Jawbone UP – is at this point in time:

“We think this market is real and growing, but, much like we see in the enterprise space, a lot of data is getting created and the use cases for that data are lagging behind; further, this is a series of walled gardens that don’t talk with one another yet, and require user-lock in. Right now the data is dirty and not being aggregated into a way that can be digested.”

Those are great points. In my own tests of these products for my book, I’ve found a lot of data and UI issues. That hasn’t surprised me, as the industry is still in its early stage. The product (and therefore platform) companies in this sector, such as Nike and Fitbit, are still working out the “use cases” for the data its devices collect. There are also many new startups emerging that want to use that data. They too are figuring it out as they go – and remember they’re dependent on good data from the likes of Nike and Fitbit.

Which brings me to the the Walled Garden issue, mentioned by Altimeter. In other words, the data that users create cannot easily be used on other platforms. I agree it’s a real concern in the QI space, just as it is in every other Web market – Facebook and Twitter of course are the two biggest examples of products where users don’t have a great deal of control over their own data. Using Fitbit as an example, I can export some of my data as a premium user – i.e. I had to pay for that ‘privilege’. But I can’t export all of my data and I certainly can’t use it fully in other Web products. That’s from the user perspective. Imagine how frustrating it is to third party products that want to use data from Nike, Fitbit and other platforms.

But it’s early days and because there is healthy competition among the platforms currently, I’m optimistic the ecosystem will continue to develop well and open up more over time. I’m also grateful that Google or Apple aren’t major players in the QS market (yet! I expect they will be at some point), because that allows the smaller companies like Fitbit and Jawbone to try and establish themselves – which they are doing.

Altimeter rates QS as a “watch”. The only other technology which got that rating from them was “Augmented and Virtual Reality (Google Glass and Occulus Rift)”. I agree those two technologies are both at about the same stage and that “watch” is a fair rating for them. I’m writing a book about QS and similar consumer health technologies precisely because it is still early stage, which means there is a lot of potential and therefore interesting stories to tell as it develops.