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At CES, staying healthy the high-tech way

Show highlights sensors, but will public bite?

A skullcap from MC10 of Cambridge, shown by the Tennessee Titans’ Matt Hasselbeck, contains head-trauma sensors to protect athletes.
A skullcap from MC10 of Cambridge, shown by the Tennessee Titans’ Matt Hasselbeck, contains head-trauma sensors to protect athletes.Mike Stotts for The Boston Globe/Mike Stotts

LAS VEGAS — Visitors to this week’s Consumer Electronics Show will get a pretty good workout as they trudge through 2 million square feet of gadgets and appliances. But many of the newest devices are designed to help people stay fit year round.

Fitness technology has become a major presence at CES, as dozens of companies present health and fitness products — ranging from watches that measure a person’s pulse to sensors that track the user’s sleep patterns. But it’s an open question whether consumers will embrace digital pedometers and heart rate monitors, or if they will end up gathering dust like last year’s exercise bike.


Lindsey Colella, senior community manager of qualitative research at Forrester­ Research in Cambridge, said that so far, these products have only attracted hard-core fitness buffs and the technology pace-setters who must be first to try everything.

“When it comes to ordinary consumers, they’re not much interested,” Colella said. “They think it’s just a waste of money.”

According to Parks Associates, a Dallas technology research company, most Americans with broadband Internet access own some kind of digital fitness device, with digital scales being the most popular.

But more sophisticated gadgets are much less commonplace. Just 26 percent use a digital blood pressure tester, 13 percent have a digital pedometer to measure distances run or walked, about the same number have an electronic blood glucose tester, and 6 percent use a digital watch that monitors the heart rate.

“I think it’s still very early days for this,” said a Parks Associates analyst, Jennifer Kent.

Tech innovators, aware of the challenge, are responding with devices that are simpler to operate and more convenient to wear. The rise of the smartphone has helped, by providing a familiar way of interacting with digital health products.

Masimo Corp., a longtime maker of medical products, has introduced a blood oxygen sensor that plugs into an iPhone. It’s designed for people with respiratory problems and serious fitness buffs, as well as for pilots of high-altitude aircraft, who need immediate warning if their oxygen level falls too low.


“To be honest with you, we didn’t think we were going to make money with this,” said Masimo’s spokesman, Mike Drummond. But Drummond said he has heard from potential buyers who are interested in purchasing thousands of the sensors, including a representative of the Israeli Air Force.

Fitlinxx, a Connecticut company with research and development operations in Westborough, makes the Pebble, a device that attaches to a user’s shoe or wrist to measure walking or running speed, as well as how fast calories are burned. The Pebble contains a radio that transmits the data to a small device that is plugged into a computer’s USB port.

But Fitlinxx’s chief executive, Dave Monahan, said future versions of the device will use the standard Bluetooth technology found in cellphones, making data transfer much simpler.

Omron, a Japanese maker of digital health gear, has developed a blood pressure monitor that relays data to phones equipped with near-field communications chips, such as the popular Samsung Galaxy Note II. A user would merely touch the phone to the device to copy the information, store it on the phone, or relay it to a doctor via the Internet.

Zach Albright, an Omron software product manager, said his company is also working on “gamification” software to transform medical monitoring into an online social game. Users would compete by trying to attain the best readings.


A game-based approach would make it more likely that users would keep monitoring their health data, Albright said.

MC10 Inc. of Cambridge offered­ a sophisticated new way to protect athletes against head trauma.

The Tennessee Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, an adviser to the company, demonstrated a skullcap with MC10’s trauma sensor built in.

The cap, which will be available for purchase in the first half of the year, features a digital readout that measures the force generated by a blow to the wearer’s head. This information will make it easier for coaches and medical personnel to know if a player has suffered a damaging hit. “This is another set of eyes on the athlete,” Hasselbeck said.

Hasselbeck and his former Seattle Seahawks teammate, Isaiah Kacyvenski, now MC10’s director of sports segment licensing and business development, showed an upcoming product that could serve a much larger market: a bandage-like plastic strip with circuitry to measure body temperature and heart rate. The strip records the data and transfers it instantly when touched by an NFC-equipped smartphone. MC10 plans to introduce a commercial version by year’s end. The stick-on monitor is far more comfortable than today’s bulky sensors, making it more likely nonathletes will use them.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.