Shortly before Apple's most recent developer conference, rumors began to circulate about the next generation of its watch. Sources suggested that the device would demonstrate a form of noninvasive glucose monitoring -- a way to check blood sugar levels without breaching the skin. If possible, the Apple Watch Series 3 would become an essential product for 29 million American diabetics, overnight. It came to nothing, of course, but people are still wondering if there's a way for smartwatches to sniff our blood and tell us their findings. Thing is, there's already a watch that professes to do a similar task: the controversial Healbe GoBe.
In order to see what the future of medical wearables could be like, I've spent the past few weeks with the new GoBe 2 strapped to my wrist. The device was soft-launched to a group of pre-order customers a few months ago, with more going on sale at some point this fall. If the name tickles a synapse at the back of your brain, it's because Healbe burst onto the scene in 2014. The company launched an Indiegogo campaign to build a watch that could track how many calories you'd eaten each day. Not your blood sugar, but close enough.
Imagine it: You'd never have to think about logging your calorie intake again; your watch would do it all for you. The claim was ridiculous, but the company managed to secure more than $1 million in backing. Medical professionals and journalists weighed in, saying that the idea was about as feasible as capturing a unicorn fart. Thanks to sites like PandoDaily, the name Healbe became synonymous with companies that tried to sell you a dream and run off with your cash.
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The device finally launched a year later, with its signature tracking feature kinda sorta working, but not very well. When we reviewed it, we felt that the watch had too many rough edges to justify people buying it, despite its vastly superior sleep and fitness tracking features. Perhaps the company rushed its first release in response to public pressure, which ostensibly explains why it failed. Now, Healbe believes that its second-generation device is finally ready for prime time and able to do what was promised.
As for the science, Healbe claims that it uses a piezoelectric impedance sensor to push high- and low-frequency signals through your wrist. Shortly after eating, the cells in your bloodstream begin releasing water as they absorb the new glucose. The device, so the company says, can use the impedance signals to look at the size and shape of the cells, and track the change in water. From there, it's just a case of using fancy math to calculate the amount of food you've noshed in a sitting.
One thing that Healbe's representatives went to great pains to explain is that the human body isn't as simple as you may expect. The initial pitch mistakenly hinted that, at some point after you'd eaten a sandwich, the watch would simply ping and tell you that you'd consumed 233 calories. But most meals take between four and six hours to digest as the slurry of chewed food churns through our bodies. Rather than looking at the micro, I was told, I needed to see the GoBe 2 as a way of understanding the macro.
The device itself is a little more elegant than its predecessor, although that's not saying much. It still just fits under a shirt sleeve, although you'll be unable to pretend it's anything but a clunky-looking wearable. The new model's case is all black, and gone is the top layer of metal that demarcated the display in the first generation. A single button activates the display and cycles through the various screens, from telling the time to measuring your calorie balance.
Most of the interesting bits are contained within its companion app, which elegantly shows off your vital statistics. It's broken down into five subsections: "Energy Balance," Hydration, Heart Rate, Sleep and Stress. The first one combines activity tracking and calorie monitoring to provide you with a single figure, showing whether you're in calorie credit or deficit each day. It's calculated by subtracting the activity you've completed against the food you've consumed, so, depending on how good you've been, it'll be a plus or minus figure.
As for the calorie counting itself, you get a series of figures breaking down the calories taken in, and how many are fat, carbs and protein. A graph then shows you absorption over the past day, running from midnight to midnight. It's good to note that you'll see spikes in calorie burn in the small hours of the morning too, as your body works through the day's food.
Unlike the first-generation GoBe, you don't need to tell the device when you're going to eat; it does it all automatically. So looking at the graph for an average day, there's a lot of burning as I sleep, and then a big spike shortly after I eat breakfast. Then the graph spikes shrink through the morning before shooting back up again at lunchtime, and so forth. While I wasn't expecting a constant and precise record of my consumption, I found the tracking to be pretty close to my handwritten notes.
Hydration is another issue, and the watch is obsessed with ensuring that I get enough fluids, even though I thought I was a good drinker. It will often buzz at me, instructing me to take on more water, even if I'm on the cusp of falling asleep -- at least until I'd set its reminder window to remind me to drink only during daylight hours. After all, at one point I was full to bursting after I chain-drank the better part of three liters of green tea, and I was still being advised that I needed to drink more.
Similarly, the sleep tracking is some of the most accurate I've seen, outlining periods of REM sleep, stress and anxiety through the night. Similarly, it's the first "stress"-counting wearable that has actually worked, vibrating with the warning "Emotion" during a particularly fractious conversation with my other half. It all adds up to a device that actually kinda does what was promised, which is probably the biggest surprise of all of this.
The questions that linger are simple: whether Apple will adopt a technology like this in a future version of its watch, and if it can be tweaked to calculate blood sugar. On the first point, the biggest obstacle to its use would be the GoBe's atrocious battery life -- it lasts 24 hours between charges. The Watch itself has an even shorter lifespan, and it would take a radical redesign to make it practical.
As for whether the technology could be used to track blood sugar levels, that will come down to how well the algorithms can be tweaked. If Healbe's Flow technology is legitimate, and it does turn out to be capable of tracking food consumption, then it's entirely plausible and possible. Although Apple will be held to a vastly higher standard than Healbe, especially given the latter company's lack of credibility.
Testing this device, I expected very little from it, believing that its signature feature was simply too impossible to work. But the Healbe GoBe 2 is a very good health and fitness tracker, offering insights and proactive advice that I appreciate in a wearable device. It offers lifestyle metrics that other companies would dream of being able to offer, and reading my stats has become a mild obsession. As a consequence, the company has earned a second chance at a first impression.