Verily reveals research-focused wearable health tracker

Verily has unveiled its long-discussed wearable health tracker, Study Watch. The Alphabet unit formerly known as Google Life Sciences has designed the watch to meet the needs of clinical trials and the patients they monitor, resulting in an unobtrusive device with a long battery life.

Focusing on researchers, rather than consumers, has resulted in a device that is notably different from wearables from Apple, Fitbit and other manufacturers. Some of the standout features of Study Watch are those designed to ensure research participants keep wearing it for the duration of the trial and cut the risk of data loss.

These features reflect investigator concerns about the impact on data quality of subjects failing to wear the device or upload results from it, as well as everyone's worries about the security of health and research data. To mitigate these risks, Study Watch has a longer battery life, more storage and a greater focus on security than is typical.

At one week, the battery life of Study Watch exceeds that of many wearables, although it falls well short of the one year achieved by Garmin’s vivofit. With patients only having to take off the device to charge once a week, there are fewer opportunities for subjects to forget to put Study Watch back on than there are for other devices with battery lives of one to five days. The design of the device, which looks like a normal watch and does little other than tell the time, is also intended to make people comfortable with wearing it day to day.

This is one way Verily has designed Study Watch to deliver research-grade data. Another is the focus on security. Data kept on the device are encrypted before being uploaded to the cloud. And the amount of storage on Study Watch means users can go an unusually long time between syncing.

The Alphabet company claims Study Watch can store “weeks” of raw data. This cuts the burden of participation on study subjects by freeing them of the need to frequently upload data. The risk is that a problem with the storage on the device could affect weeks of data. The failure of a device with a more frequent upload schedule would be less detrimental to data quality.

Regulatory filings from last year showed Verily was working on a device called Connectivity Bridge. That device was designed to wirelessly pull data from wearables and upload them to the cloud. In theory, the product could eliminate data transfer as a concern. But the Study Watch update makes no mention of the hub.

What Verily has disclosed are the sensors in Study Watch and the early studies in which it is being used. As expected, the device features sensors to measure heart rate and movement. Study Watch is also capable of monitoring electrodermal activity, which can yield insights about the sympathetic nervous system. And, most notably, Verily has included an electrocardiogram, a feature that sets it apart from most other wrist-worn wearable health trackers.

Verily will use the device in its own Baseline study—its long-discussed attempt to define the characteristics of a healthy human—and in a Parkinson’s disease project being run in the Netherlands. The company is providing 650 watches and cash to the Parkinson’s project, according to MIT Technology Review. The study team hopes being able to track participants around the clock will yield insights into Parkinson’s that are impossible to glean from periodic site visits.

“We know one of the early symptoms in Parkinson’s is heart rate variability. But we only measure it in the hospital,” Bastiaan Bloem, a neurologist involved in the study, said. “And sleep is something you just can’t grasp in the hospital at all.”