a Garmin Optical Armband – like WHOOP
With Garmin finally pushing out the Elevate Gen 4 optical heart rate sensor into the latest Venu then the chances of Garmin using the technology in novel ways is increased.
Let’s take a look at the prospect of Garmin making a screen-free, optical heart rate armband, ostensibly it would be for the upper arm but such a device could be used elsewhere on the body with tweaks to the holding mechanism and the length of the strap. I’m thinking of something along the lines of Whoop.
Why An Optical HR Arm Band?
Some people don’t like chest straps or just don’t want to wear one, others find it hard to get good readings from a chest strap for anatomical reasons. That said, a chest strap IS the best way for MOST people to get accurate HR and HRV data.
Sometimes the use-case favours ditching the chest strap. For example, when lying on my Vasa Swim Erg it’s simply too uncomfortable for me to wear my beloved Garmin HRM-PRO. Plus when swimming a chest strap can flip and when in the gym or sleeping there might be reasons linked to comfort or aesthetics to explain why you’d prefer an armband over a chest strap.
At least anecdotally, there appears to be a market need for optical armband heart rate monitors and there are already several players in that market, perhaps we can also assume it’s a reasonably sized market.
Optical Heart Rate on the arm – A Potted & Incomplete History
Optical HR technology became quickly accepted and several new uses emerged
PulseOn found a way to bring optical HR to our wrists in 2014, the following year saw the Scosche Rhythm arm strap built using an early Valcencell optical sensor. Whilst the PulseON wasn’t terribly accurate, the Scosche was. It seemed that Scosche (Valencell) had found the magic bullet and that optical HR would take over a good proportion of the sporting data world. Around the same time, the MIO link emerged as a promising contender for optical HR on the wrist. MIO used an early Phillips sensor and innovated with other types of band that recorded and transmitted sports data. With the MIO, I recorded one of the first tests (the first?) that showed that it was possible for HR to be transmitted short distances underwater using ANT+ between the MIO and a Garmin wristwatch. Other MIO optical bands were designed to cache data in the strap and then send it back later to an app and that capability could be great for some team sports where the wearer is too far away from the app which might be recording the game/workout.
However, as the tech became more prevalent on SMARTwatches and sports watches cracks emerged in the competencies of optical HR tech. It became clear that the wrist was the worst possible place to use this tech to get accurate data yet perversely, the wrist was the best location if convenience was your criteria. Thus the Scosche wasn’t brilliantly accurate per se, it was wearing the tech on the upper arm that proved to be a great place to get accurate results.
Valencell licenced their tech to Jabra for the in-ear recording of HR using music buds, a perfect combination for many runners and the ear was a great place to get accurate results too, providing that pesky bud stayed in place. Polar was also in on the innovation game with their first-gen optical sensor adapted to create a swimming goggle strap which allowed the OH1 to get accurate results from the temple and beam them live into the FORM swimming goggles’ Heads-Up-Display.
Within a few years, lots of clever people had developed lots of clever algorithms that could ignore motion artefacts (data ‘noise’) to the extent that wrist-based watches produced better sporting HR readings and accurate HRV at resting levels, that opened up a whole host of opportunities to look at recovery and readiness metrics. As cheaper versions of the tech emerged, it soon became apparent that either their sensor array or algorithms could produce truly awful results. So it wasn’t simply the wear position that was important it was the maths as well.
The final major piece in the historical jigsaw is WHOOP (c2016) which was the first company to eke decent battery life out of the tech of the day by performing all their complex algorithms offline on their cloud platform. Their ground-breaking algorithms cut through the noise to measure HRV and did a good enough job of recording your activity. With those two aspects of HR in place – activity HR and resting HRV – WHOOP was able to relatively easily calculate fairly accurate readiness-to-train metrics. Indeed WHOOP has built a good business on that simple premise. WHOOP also offers the ability to wear their sensor on the upper arm for increased accuracy and in a protective sleeve which gets around the problems of wristwatches potentially causing damage to other people if worn in team sports.
Other notable tech in this market includes:
- MioPOD from MIO Labs still makes a good wrist band – caches and links to physio features
- Wahoo TICKR FIT is a competent offering from cycling’s challenger brand – an athletic sports-focussed band
- Biostrap EVO – A bit like WHOOP but cheaper with more metrics, perhaps better suited for a Bio Hacker?
- There are several wristband options from brands you haven’t heard of like RUNAR – cost focussed
- Polar has iterated from the OH1 to OH1+ and recently to the well-featured Polar Verity Sense (Review). It still doesn’t use Polar’s latest Precision Prime LED array but it’s perhaps the most accurate and best-featured product in this segment right now.
- Garmin ELEVATE (Gen 3, presumably also Gen 4) and Apple’s optical HR in the Apple Watch 6 are the two most accurate optical HR technologies in my experience. Neither are perfect but the results on the wrist are the best.
The notable absences from companies who are yet to produce an armband sensor (that isn’t a watch)
- Suunto – they licence their optical tech from LifeQ for the Suunto 7 and from Valencell for previous watches. Suunto likely would not get volume sales to make an optical armband worthwhile
Where are the market opportunities now?
Let’s ignore optical HR in wristwatches.
The two main markets for optical armbands are for:
- people who want to record sport/activity usually on the upper arm; and for
- people who want a WHOOP-like device to record sleep data, activity data and to produce readiness guidance.
You can further slice and dice those opportunities in several ways to look at team sports or gym/class activities or to look at the reason why a person wants or needs to wear a device on the arm. Then there are peripheral opportunities linked to swimming goggles and wearing on the leg or in the ear.
Whichever of the 2 markets Garmin might choose they would normally produce a feature-rich offering as that is what Garmin shareholders require. On the one hand, such features would include Firstbeat metrics and on the other hand, there would be inbuilt technical competencies like swim-caching and perhaps even motion dynamics.
Bring In Garmin…or not…maybe they are already here?
Garmin could easily use their tech to create an armband. There is zero doubt that they could create a fabric strap and stick their existing sensor on it. There is zero doubt that there is a market opportunity that is big enough for Garmin and they have the competence to route accessories through their existing distribution channels to meet that need.
So…where’s the Garmin band?
Garmin-lovers could get creative and go all misty-eyed at the thought of a Garmin armband strap paired to their Edge 1030+ or an armband they could wear overnight like WHOOP, pumping data into their Body Battery stats on Garmin Connect.
Surely it’s obvious that Garmin has to do this? They probably wouldn’t even need to re-purpose the app too much.
It’s not a case of if…it’s when. Surely WHEN must be soon?
I’m not so sure.
A Garmin optical armband – Why Not.
Garmin’s platform is GOOD and it’s free. Well… it’s free only if you buy one of their expensive watches or bike computers. The exception is for the HRM-PRO which retrieves Steps, Calories, and HR but not workouts. So if you wore the HRM-PRO to bed, then maybe you have a Whoop competitor 😉
From time to time, sporty people might want to independently record a workout without a watch and for that, a new Garmin armband like Whoop would need direct access to the Garmin Connect platform. ie Garmin Connect must become a live recording device for the armband, thus working like Polar BEAT. Either that or the armband must cache a workout and pipe it back later to Connect like the Polar Verity Sense.
Such an optical ARM band would need to be priced somewhere around $100/£85. That’s cheaper than the HRM-PRO but it would also need to give away access to Garmin CONNECT to make it a viable product. Will Garmin sell access to Garmin Connect so cheaply? I’m not so sure. No Garmin chest strap currently gives you access to workout data on CONNECT, you have to buy a watch, band or bike computer.
In order to offer itself as a WHOOP competitor, Garmin would face similar dilemmas. An optical armband and/or sleep recording device will cannibalise the sales of many top-end Fenix and Vivoactive watches.
Then we come to the Vivosmart 4 which already supports Garmin Body Battery and so Garmin would argue that the health/fitness/lifestyle user already has an option for a WHOOP-like product and one that’s significantly cheaper. So Vivosmart 4 is Garmin’s readiness-to-train product, it’s just not (yet) been re-purposed to the athletic crowd as WHOOP has.
A Garmin optical Armband – Key Features
The key features that would be required are those which would make it a WHOOP competitor as well as a perfect partner to Garmin’s top-end Forerunner/Edge and Fenix devices. As such it would need these capabilities
- Store and sync HR data via ANT+/BLE for 24×7 health and for Workouts
- Accurate Resting HRV readings with support for 24×7, nightly or ad-hoc reading capture.
- Battery life for at least 3 days including 20 hours of sporting use. Ideally 7 days between charges
- Straps suitable for swimming, sleeping, gym and intense endurance workouts.
- Straps that support wearing on the wrist, forearm and upper arm (2-3 straps would be needed)
- Support for key Garmin sleep and recovery metrics on Garmin Connect. In reality, Gamin Connect needs tweaking to morph itself partly into an HRV/readiness app.
- 24×7 aesthetics – it MUST look good enough for 24×7 usage…like WHOOP.
- 3rd Partly compatibility links for the HRV/RR data to Apple Health, Google Fit…
We could talk motion sensors and LEDs but those listed are the key features.
Would I buy one? Hell yeah!
Caution: Think – Canabalsation. Think – cheap access to Garmin Connect
With the Vivosmart already capable as a readiness tracker for the masses, I can’t see Garmin making a souped-up, display-free equivalent for the athletes and hence competing head-to-head with Whoop. Though it’s possible.
Neither can I see Garmin producing a basic sports-focussed armband like a Wahoo TICKR Fit, it would need to have more features to justify the inevitable premium pricing. That’s possible too.
That leaves a feature-rich optical armband as the most viable product for Garmin in this space. The BIG problem with an all-singing, all-dancing recovery-cum-caching optical superband is the cannibalisation of sales from high margin watches. I reckon that’s why we haven’t seen an optical armband from Garmin so far. That said, it wouldn’t surprise me either if one was released next month!
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