Man Looking at Fitness Tracker

The Future of Fitness Trackers Looks Brighter for Wheelchair Users

Just look around and it will probably come as no surprise that activity/fitness trackers are hot.  Wherever you go, you see someone with a device strapped to their wrist, clipped to their belt, or stashed in a pocket.  Every step, heartbeat, and calorie burned is captured, tracked, and analyzed.

As a matter of fact, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recently released the results of its annual survey of health and fitness trends and named wearable technology as the hottest fitness trend for 2017.  Recent studies support the skyward trend of activity trackers and other wearable devices, with sales increasing an estimated 29% between 2015 and 2016, from 78.1 million to 102 million units sold.

Even with the impressive growth in sales, activity tracker manufacturers have neglected a significant market segment – wheelchair users.  Up until recently, there were no activity trackers on the market that accommodated the needs of wheelchair users.  Traditionally, activity trackers use algorithms that measure two major components of a taking a step – arm swing and heel strike.  Obviously, there is no heel strike involved in pushing a wheelchair, so the traditional algorithms fail for wheelchair users.  In order to accurately measure activity for wheelchair users, manufacturers have to redesign the way that the tracker looks at movement.  Fortunately, a few companies have taken on this challenge and, finally, activity trackers for wheelchair users are beginning to emerging on the market.

The First:  The Apple Watch

As a leader in accessible technology, Apple was the first major player in the wearable device market to release a that accurately track activity for wheelchair users.  The release of watchOS 3.0 in September 2016, gave wheelchair users the first opportunity to take advantage of the benefits of activity tracking technology.  In addition to a number of new and improved accessibility options for individuals with vision impairments, hearing impairments, and motor skill impairments, Apple updated its Activity and Workout apps to be inclusive of wheelchair users.

Here is an overview of each app and some of the features designed specifically for wheelchair users.

Activity App

The Activity app is designed to measure overall activity throughout the day.  It allows the user to set daily activity goals and share data with friends.  The app provides progress updates and coaching along the way and awards an achievement badge when a goal is reached.

Activity app now includes the following features for wheelchair users:

  • Wheelchair users can change the series of three rings displayed in the daily activity snapshot from Stand, Exercise, and Move to Roll, Exercise, and Move.
  • The Roll goal replaces the Stand goal for wheelchair users. Users can set an automatic “time to roll” notification to alert them every hour and remind them to user to stretch and/or roll for one minute.
  • Wheelchair users can track distance, speed and calories burned when wheeling, since the app measures pushes rather than steps. To increase the accuracy for wheelchair users, the formulas used to calculate each takes into consideration factors such as the rolling surface (soft vs. hard), incline/decline, and the height of the wheelchair seat and wheels.

Workout App

The Workout app is designed to give feedback during a specific workout.  Users can set workout goals time, distance, or calories. During the workout, the app provides progress updates and notifies the user when the goal is reached.

The app provides two wheelchair-specific workouts for outdoor pushing – Outdoor Wheelchair Walk Pace (for workouts done at or about a running speed) and Outdoor Wheelchair Run Pace (for workouts done at or about a running speed).  Each workout measures time, pace, distance, calories, and heart rate.

The Future:  Accenture Freewheel

Freewheel, a prototype designed and developed by Accenture Interactive’s Chaotic Moon Studios, shows promise as another viable contender in the activity tracker market for wheelchair users.  The prototype and associated app recently won the Grand Prix at the at 10th anniversary Dadi Awards (The Drum Awards for the Digital Industries).

The idea for Freewheel was hatched by Tyler Hively, a Chaotic Moon content strategist and wheelchair user.  Faced with a lack of viable activity trackers for wheelchair users, Hively pitched his idea to management and the project was launched.

Freewheel takes a different approach to wearable technology for wheelchair users.  Unlike the Apple Watch, Freewheel isn’t worn on the user’s body.  Instead, the device attaches directly to the user’s wheelchair.  Freewheel measures speed, acceleration, distance, altitude, incline and decline using Hall effect sensors, a barometer, a gyroscope and an accelerometer.  The device then transmits the data to the user’s phone, smartwatch, or another device via Bluetooth.

Freewheel is currently in the development stages and does not have a release date set.  Hopefully this exciting new product will be on the market soon, providing wheelchair users with another option for easy, accurate activity tracking.

To learn more about Freewheel, view the project video here.

The Vision:  Fitness Tracking for All

While it is encouraging to see companies like Apple and Accenture developing fitness tracking devices for wheelchair users, there is still a lot of room for growth.  The Apple Watch accounted for just 20% of the market share of wearable sales in 2015.  That means that the other 80% of products on market, including the industry-leading FitBit, are not usable by wheelchair users.  It is time that all companies begin to see that designing fitness trackers that are usable by all not only serves the needs of the disability community but is also good business.

Are you a wheelchair user that uses an Apple watch or other fitness tracking device?  We would love to hear from you!  Share your experiences with our community in the Comments section below.

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