The Apple Watch in its first iteration is still a relatively primitive object. But the trajectory lines have been drawn. While the Apple Watch will be many things (a notification platform, a timepiece, a fashion accessory), one of its primary functions will be to operate as a human odometer. It already counts your steps, heartbeat, and physical activity. And that’s just the start.
Wearing a human odometer has implications beyond the ability to slap a health dashboard on our wrists. The real value will come from the data exhaust issuing from our bodies. That data has the potential to upend some existing markets and create new ones.
Data helps to forge and strengthen markets by creating transparency where none existed before. Consider the ordinary car odometer. Economists Alex Tabarrok and Tyler Cowen describe how the odometer helped to create the market for used cars in The End of Asymmetric Information:
The odometer reading is the single most important piece of information about a specific car that determines its value, and that is why used car prices are adjusted for mileage.
Before odometer readings became reliable and enforced by law, the market for used cars was asymmetric: sellers had more information about the car they were selling than buyers. Reliable odometer readings reduced that information asymmetry by giving buyers a key data point with which to place a value on any given vehicle. The more miles, the less a car is worth.
Now, what are the markets that could be impacted by the data coming from human odometers? Health insurance is the most obvious one. Life insurance is another. What if you could lower your premiums by placing an odometer on your body to prove you live a healthy lifestyle? Oscar, the health insurance startup in New York City that recently raised $145 million, is already doing this by giving members Misfit health trackers and paying them each time they hit their daily movement goal.
Today’s fitness trackers, and even the Apple Watch, are relatively primitive in their capabilities. We are just at the very beginning of the technology curve for human odometers. Soon we will be measuring many more vital signs. As Tabarrok and Cowen describe it:
Black boxes for people are not yet standard, but wearable sensors can monitor movement, heart rate, and heart rhythm, blood pressure and blood-oxygen levels, and glucose levels and other health-related statistics. Such information can be recorded and reported through smartphone apps, watches, and other wearable devices.
Whether or not you are one of the early adopters who rushed out to buy an Apple Watch (only an estimated 1.7 million have been sold so far, compared to 61 million iPhones last quarter), chances are you too will join the human odometer movement, if you haven’t already. Anyone with the latest iPhone can now track their steps and a whole host of other health data with the new Health app that comes standard with iOS 8.
Remember, you are not just tracking your own health with pretty charts. You are helping to create new markets. People with the right data will be paid for it one way or another. But people with the wrong data will have to pay. Just like for a used car, the human odometer will determine your value.