The speculation that Apple may release its first augmented reality (AR) headset in 2022 and AR glasses by 2023 did not quite take over the internet last week as it was overshadowed by the company’s official launch of three new observational health studies. The Apple Women’s Health; Heart and Movement, and Hearing studies are now open for enrollment via a research application for iPhone and Apple Watch users. 

Plans for these three new studies were announced in September and similar to the previous Apple Heart Study, they will be conducted in partnership with leading academic and research institutions such as the National Institute of Health, the American Heart Association, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, University of Michigan, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital. 

As of now, the Hearing study plans to recruit 150,000 individuals over the next two years; while the Heart and Movement study’s target is at least 500,000 individuals over the next five years and Women’s Health study is a million in the next decade. Since they are deemed as “observational”, this means study participants will not be divided into intervention and control groups. However, for the Hearing study, participants will be randomly put in a group which receives notifications upon detection of loud noise and one which does not, to see if people behave differently when they are exposed to noise.

Wearable rival?

Just two weeks ago, Google acquired pioneer of fitness tracker – Fitbit for $2.1 billion, a clear indication its interest in the domain has not died down even though introducing Android Wear (Wear OS) in 2014 to compete with Motorola, Asus, Sony, Huawei, or LG, ended abruptly when Apple debuted its smartwatch to the market. Likewise, according to theChief Executive Officer of Fitbit James Park, Fitbit had failed to rapidly and thoroughly embrace the growth of the consumer hardware industry, leaving the company to reel with uncertainties and sort for alternatives.  

Nevertheless, it’s myopic to regard the acquisition as mere commercial and a strategy to compete with Apple because getting access to a large amount of consumer data and a spot within the digital healthcare space appear to be more lucrative. Indeed, the digital healthcare space is likely to worth up to $24 billion by 2020. Google has been venturing into the area of cardiovascular health and diabetes with artificial intelligence (AI) but has yet to have a formalized plan. 

Fitbit, on the other hand, has about 28 million active users who are monitoring their daily routines, step counts, heart rate, and so on and it has been working with insurance companies and implementing direct corporate wellness programs to venture into new areas where wearables could profit. As such, Google will not hesitate to work with a key player like this, to quickly gain a place in digital healthcare and continue to explore the bigger value behind it. 

What does it actually mean for healthcare? 

Almost immediately after the acquisition, some users openly declared to ditch Fitbit for Apple Watch because they show no confidence in the way Google handles individuals’ personal and health information. The public’s reaction comes as a surprise because both Apple and Google affirmed they would not sell users’ data. 

In spite so, these responses are not entirely absurd because a recent report showed that Google secretly harvested “tens of millions” of medical records in a machine learning project called “Nightingale”. In a separate data-sharing partnership with the University of Chicago, although Google promised the utilized data would be anonymized, it was later accused of containing strips of identifiable details on doctors’ notes. The mishandling of data puts Google in sharp contrast with Apple, which gives users the absolute control over the kind of data they want to share or delete within 24 hours of collection. 

The ongoing smartwatch rival has definitely created or revived some kind of “data awakening” among users and partnering institutions but its overall long-term impact on healthcare remains opaque. Apple shared its heart study results this March, mainly to demonstrate that its smartwatches are able to undermine crucial changes in heart rhythms and recommend users to seek further help. Yet, experts doubted its actual medical relevance as the results were generated by a group of individuals who “could afford such technology” and may lead to high false-positive and unnecessary visits to the doctors. On the bright side, some believe healthcare organizations could learn from these companies and have a better insight into leveraging on streaming health data coming from consumer hardware and mimic it across other channels such as the electronic health records. 

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Hazel Tang

A science writer with data background and an interest in the current affair, culture, and arts; a no-med from an (almost) all-med family. Follow on Twitter.