There could not be a better time for portable technology to shine. In the corona age, we are all concerned about our well-being. So laptops with tiny sensors that provide insight into our health seem particularly useful.
One such gadget that stands out as exciting is the third generation of Oura Ring, which was unveiled last November. It’s a small $ 300 health care device worn on a finger, as if it were a piece of jewelry.
According to Oura Health, the ring offers the unique ability to measure small changes in body temperature to help women accurately predict their menstrual cycles and potentially detect when a person becomes ill. It may even reveal early symptoms of Covid-19, the company said.
Who would not want it these days?
The Oura ring has also made a splashy debut. You may have seen it in a recent episode of “And Just Like That”, the reboot of “Sex and the City”. Prince Harry, Kim Kardashian and Jennifer Aniston have been seen wearing one. And ads for it have appeared on Instagram and other social media, portraying the ring as a replacement for devices like the Apple Watch.
Despite all the hype, I am disappointed to report after two weeks of using an Oura that it was a failure. The ring could not accurately measure basic data like my footsteps, which raised broader questions about my overall health data. (More on this later.) And although the charts about my heart rate and sleep patterns certainly looked neat, I no longer felt enlightened about my overall health.
I also can not confirm if the Oura can detect Covid-19 or any disease because I (thankfully) have not become ill.
For another opinion, I turned to Dr. Ethan Weiss, a cardiologist at the University of California, San Francisco, who owns an older version of the Oura ring that he used to track sleep, body temperature, and fitness activity. Dr. Weiss said he had stopped wearing it years ago.
“It didn’t give me anything I could use to help myself,” he said. “Many of these technologies are looking for problems to solve. This is one of them.”
There may be some people who would like the Oura ring – body hackers and competitive athletes striving to optimize their fitness levels think about – but I would not recommend it to most of us.
Getting started with an Oura Ring is a multi-step process. First, order a free size kit from the company website to measure your finger. Then you tell the company your size. When the ring arrives, place it on a dock to charge it and sync it with a smartphone app. Once worn, it takes about two weeks for the software to calculate the baseline of your health data and make accurate estimates.
After week 1 with testing, something unusual came up. A relative needed help in an emergency, so I hopped on my motorcycle and drove 50 miles to his house.
After I rode home, I opened the Oura app. It said I had walked 20 miles. This was obviously wrong. I had only walked a mile that day when I took my dogs out for an afternoon walk.
It was clear what had happened. The Oura had incorrectly logged part of my 100-mile motorcycle ride as a footprint.
A quick web search revealed that Oura customers complained about this issue last year with the previous version of the ring. The company’s response at the time, posted on Reddit, was that the ring mistakenly detected “excess movement” from motorcycling as a fitness activity, and it suggested removing the ring and putting it in a pocket while riding a motorcycle.
Chris Becherer, Oura Health’s product manager, told me that the company was aware of the problem and was researching a solution. He suggested that in the meantime I could go back and delete workout programs to inform the app that I was not going.
This did not work. The app had permanently detected my movements as walking and the data could not be cleaned. I regularly ride a motorcycle, also for errands around town, so that meant almost a week of activity data was ruined. Having to manually edit my data would also have defeated the purpose of an automatic tracker.
By comparison, I also wore an Apple Watch while testing Oura. Even after my 100-mile ride, the Apple Watch correctly reported that I had only walked about a mile and had not trained much that day.
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Days later, I wore Oura again while riding my motorcycle to the gym. The app reported that I had walked about six miles in 3,500 steps.
Some aspects of Oura are interesting. The ring’s battery lasts about seven days, much longer than devices like the Apple Watch that need to be recharged every other day. The longer charge means that the ring can stay longer on your body, which then allows it to collect more data about you over time, including detailed information about your heart rate and sleep.
Every day, the app collects the various measurements to calculate a “contingency score”. A high readiness score indicates that you have recovered well from the previous day’s activities. My readiness results were probably inaccurate in general due to my motorcycle riding – but for non-riders who are athletes, this could be a useful way to decide whether to train hard or rest for the day.
I also liked the way the Oura app visualized data for sleep. It showed a chart that illustrated when I was in different stages of sleep and when I was awake. It also showed my lowest heart rate while I slept – a higher heart rate could be the result of stress or having a late meal. Finally, the app gave advice: As bedtime approached, the software recommended against caffeine and alcohol consumption to get a better night’s sleep.
At the end of the experiment, I asked myself if I actually needed technology to be aware of my habits and health. After I removed Oura and stopped checking the app, I did not feel like I was missing anything.
Aside from my experience, Oura’s biggest failure is reflected in customer feedback. The second Google search result for “Oura Ring” is a collection of overwhelmingly negative customer reviews for the product. Dozens of angry customers complained about a support team refusing to answer questions or resolve issues.
This indicated that Oura Health had underinvested in customer support. That’s something I hate to see. How a company treats its customers is part of the experience of owning a product, and a brand’s service reputation is always in the back of my mind when I review products.
Mr. Becherer acknowledged the negative feedback, saying the company had struggled to build its customer support activities as its product developed. He said the company had been unprepared to handle the amount of customer inquiries after it recently added a subscription plan that asked customers to pay $ 6 a month for the app’s services after a six-month trial period. (Previously, software features were free.)
“It’s getting better,” said Mr. Becherer about the support operations. “We are following this very closely. It was a very significant burden.”
The result: Let’s wait and see if this product improves. So far, there is a cheaper way to find out if you are sick with Covid-19: fast home test kits that the US government has started offering for free.