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CES 2013 Predictions: Separating True Personal Health Device Innovators From the Crowd

01/07/2013 10:56 am ET | Updated Mar 09, 2013

As a new year begins, most Americans are focused on the fiscal cliff, but there's also an impending "health cliff" that's arguably far more frightening. The staggering statistics from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention on heart disease, diabetes and obesity in America are a wake-up call to the general populous -- as well as technologists and entrepreneurs -- to take control of our physical well-being and to make this action easy and assessable for consumers. CES 2013 will feature more than 250 innovative companies addressing the broader health dilemma, many of which will never make it as long-term players in the space.

Prevention, or the promotion of activities that encourage healthier living, is one particular market that's gaining a lot of attention within the tech crowd. The most notable trend is the advent of connected devices that help consumers monitor, track and ideally modify their behavior to live healthier, longer lives. What started as a geekier Quantified Self movement is crossing the chasm into a bona fide consumer electronics market segment. ABI Research claims that nearly 48M wireless wearable health devices are expected to be shipped in 2013 and CES is poised to reflect this trend.

Traditionally, consumer electronics manufacturers have differentiated themselves along four key dimensions: 1) brand and marketing; 2) design and form factor; 3) technology and performance; and 4) price and value. Innovators will approach these key dimensions from countless angles, and only a handful will do it just right to survive beyond the CES exhibitor floor.

Brand and marketing
With brands, it's hard for anyone to challenge the premier fitness brand marketing machine on the planet -- Nike. Since launching the Fuelband, Nike has pulled out all the stops for a worldwide promotion. It's going to be hard for any other company to "out-Nike," Nike -- God bless any upstart who wants to compete on a marketing or advertising basis.

Design and form factor
Now that we have devices ranging from wristbands and watches to armbands and clip-ons, why not have something like a to-be-launched quarter from Misfit Wearables, or a not-yet available compression performance shirt from Under Armour? The wrist is crowded physical real estate; a pendant is not hip; a clip-on is convenient but easy to lose; an armband is perceived as bulky. It's still too early to tell if there will be a prevailing form factor, as it's still a matter of personal preference.

Technology and performance
How accurate are these wearables at truly monitoring the body? The jury may still be out, but clearly some players like BodyMedia take their sensors and data very seriously by collaborating with the FDA and other research institutes. Online forums on the topic of personal health monitoring devices are increasingly full of chatter on topics ranging from battery life to data synching and monitoring accuracy. This may sound like a domain of the gadget geeks, but these features and their accuracy is critical in longitudinal tracking of the human body for self-improvement and personal health.

Price and value
Simple pedometers are the forefathers of these devices, and you can find cheap pedometers anywhere, but even in this market, higher-end pricing still comes into play. Like every other electronics category, prices will come down over time from scale economics and improved technology; but in today's world of personal health monitoring, a quality product is more important to consumers than saving money, and its unlikely we'll see a dramatic price decrease in this category at CES.

What's interesting about this market is that we think two additional parameters will help separate winners from losers at CES this year: 1) customer service and 2) an accompanying app or data ecosystem.

Customer service
Jawbone had an ignominious debut last year with a failed product, but they made amends and came back strong to the market in 2012. A refund, no questions asked, self-initiated -- when was the last time you heard something like that? We're not talking about an automotive recall from a government agency that an OEM reluctantly goes along with.

Ecosystem
Most of the leading gadget makers publish an API and have a gallery of third party apps that take advantage of their data. This data liquidity is critical and as we see healthcare giants like Aetna consuming this data, this category of devices only becomes more compelling. Apps and APIs will be table stakes by the end of 2013, if they aren't already. In fact, they speak to the notion that software is a critical component of this product category. Your hardware design may be sleek and your sensors may be accurate, but if you can't easily decipher what all that data means, it will certainly be harder to modify behavior.

Another study validated that mobile health devices are effective in helping people lose weight
(and therefore, become healthier) in December 2012. While this may only be the third year at CES where companies have showcased their wares, rest assured they will be here for years to come. The trick is to figure out which ones will be a flash in the pan and not another discarded gadget.

This blog is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post on the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES 2013), the behemoth consumer-electronics trade show held annually in Las Vegas. To read other pieces in the series, click here. What are your thoughts on CES? We invite you to submit pieces of 500-850 words -- for possible publication in The Huffington Post -- to ces2013@huffingtonpost.com.