I am a great fan of anything related to fitness tracking. I am constantly testing different wearables to identify one that not only tracks useful information, but is accessible. I was excited to hear about the FitBit Charge HR, as I have become interested in tracking my heart rate. The following review is thanks to FitBit allowing me to test out the Charge HR, in order to highlight how useful it can be to someone with a visual impairment. The FitBit Charge HR is a watch type wearable that is able to track steps taken, heart rate, floors ascended, distance moved and calories burnt.
For the visually impaired market there are not many consumer goods that can be purchased and configured without sighted assistance. The one exception being Apple, well I say one, there are now two exceptions. As the other is FitBit. I was pleasantly surprised by the configuration of my Aria WiFi Scales, as this could all be achieved from my iPhone. I was further surprised when the same could be said for the Charge HR. As the configuration takes place within the FitBit app it means the entire process can be assisted with VoiceOver, there is however, one little caveat – Bluetooth pairing. This requires you to input a 4 digit number displayed on the screen of the Charge HR, the screen is high contrast so a low vision user would be able to pair. If you are unable to rely on sighted assistance this step can be overcome by using a service such as TapTapSee or BeMyEyes, as the screen is of high enough contrast for it to be easily seen by either of these services.
The ability to configure a device out of the box yourself is refreshing. Especially when the product has not been specifically designed for the visually impaired market. It highlights how achievable these things are.
I first began to use the FitBit application with my Aria WiFi scales and it was that experience which made me seek out the Charge HR. The application is very accessible, the main functions are all labelled appropriately. Therefore, a blind or low vision user could easily use this application to track steps, record exercises and track sleeping habits. However, it is once you want to dig a little deeper that a few accessible issues arise. This however, is more to do with how information is presented, complex data is often represented by bar charts, pie charts and graphs. I can understand why this is the case. However, if there was an option to view the information in a tabulated form it would be far more accessible. I must make it clear that you can access the information, it just takes a little thinking to understand what it means. The video at the bottom of this article demonstrates this.
Heart Rate and Exercise Tracking
For me the opetical heart rate tracking capabilities (no need for a chest strap) of the FitBit Charge HR were the real big draw. While I have owned heart rate trackers in the past, due to my inability to view the watch screen, they have been a post race element. Something I could analyze afterwards but unable to access in real time. Therefore, when I placed the Charge HR on my wrist, opened the app and got a real time readout of my heart rate, this was the first time I could access such information. It is easy for this to be quickly passed over, but for me this was a powerful moment, something that was impossible to do before, was now possible.
This information can also be viewed on the screen of the Charge HR, if you have reasonably acuity and even a few degrees of vision, the screen is viewable.
As the Charge HR records your heart rate throughout the day, it is able to give curent heart rate as well as resting rate. It is actually the resting rate I am interested in. For some reason I have become a little obsessed with a low resting heart rate, and am often find myself with heart rate envy at my friends insanely low resting rates. So this is a nice little touch on the heart rate side.
Your heart rate is also logged during exercise, and post exercise analysis highlights the different heart rate zones as well as time spent in the zone. This activity tracking is where the accessibility of the application becomes difficult. There are some data points which are difficult to convey without the use of pie charts in this section. Therefore, VoiceOver struggles as none of these items are labelled sufficiently to give an indepth sense of what is going on. I also included an insight into this in the video at the bottom of the article.
Step accuracy is always up for debate, so just how accurate is the Charge HR? Well I wear the Charge HR on my dominant wrist, so I thought this may affect the count substantially. Forunately, there is a setting with the app to choose which wrist you wear the Charge HR. I decided the only true way to test was to count out some steps. So I strode out 166 steps around the house and the Charge HR got it exactly right. I do conceded that 166 is a low number, but I didn’t fancy counting out 2,000 steps to check the accuracy. Now that isnt exactly the truth, I did try, while on the treadmill. But then I got distracted and lost count!
One problem I hadn’t considered when wearing the watch on my dominant wrist was using a long cane for mobility. I usually use my guide dog, but now and again it isn’t appropriate or too difficult to take my dog with me due to travel plans. In these situations I use the long cane, with a sweep or tip tap motion depending on surface. I thought this may stump the Charge HR, as it would remove the arm swing, which I had assumed as used as a variable for tracking steps. However, with a little count off the Charge HR also showed itself to be reliable when using the long cane. Incidently it is find with the guide dog, as I hold the harness in my non-dominant hand.
The FitBit Charge HR supports silent alarms. This is a surprisingly great feature for the visually impaired. The alarams are set through the app, therefore, very accessible. Meaning it is incredibly easy to set multiple alarams, that repeat on specific days. For example. My main alarm is for Monday, Wednesday and Friday, as these are the days I wake earlier to workout. It really is an underrated feature, to have the ability to create a series of complex alarms that are a series of vibrations on your wrist.
The challenges on the FitBit Charge HR are surprisingly motivational. I would find myself setting a challenge with a friend and pacing around to increase my step count. Perhaps this highlights my sheer level of competitiveness, or that a fitness tracker like this does indeed promote you to move more. However, the challenges system is very difficult to use for the visually impaired, this is due to how the information is presented. Your relative position in the challenges, be it 1st, 3rd or 5th is presented in chart form. This is completely inaccessible to VoiceOver and nothing is read out, the only piece of information accessible through VoiceOver is how many steps you are from the lead, or indeed how far you are in the lead. The video at the bottom of this review briefly touches on this.
The sleep tracking system of the FitBit Charge HR appears to work very well. It accurately calculates when I fall asleep and when I wake, with moments of restless through the night. Unfortunately however, it suffers the same problem as the challenges and activity tracking. It struggles to convey the information through VoiceOver, you can often find yourself wondering how relevant the information is. But if you are after tracking the simple elements such as duration spent sleeping, number of restless moments and number of times awake it appears to work flawlessly.
As a blind user the battery was something that concerned me. Often the only indication a wearable’s battery is about to die is visual. So you are often left puzzled as to why your watch no longer tells the time, or why those vital steps are no longer being logged. So I was pleasantly surprised that there are not one but three accessible ways the Charge HR notifies me of a low battery. The first way I found particularly cute, I was sent an email informing me of a low battery. You can also access this information by a notification sent by the application as well as accessing the current level in application. This is particularly helpful when I am travelling for a few days. As I can be sure that the battery level is high.
The battery itself manages around 4-5 days of usage, but I believe this is perhaps reliant on how often the screen is used and indeed your daily step count. For example, on some days I may lot close to 60,000 steps, so I would not expect it to last too long with that rate.
Upon first wearing the Charge HR it can feel a little strange. I believe this may be a result of the protruding heart rate sensor. However, after a short while accomodation kicks in and you are no longer aware you are wearing the Charge HR.
it is also worth a quick mention about skin irritation. When I first began to wear the Charge HR I did find myself itching a little. Now I am firmly putting this down to the media attention around the issue and the fact during configuration of the Charge HR, it is mentioned. Almost like the affect is being primed, so when you do get a little itch it is quickly attributed to this issue.
However, I can safely say I no longer notice any form of irritation. I even wear the Charge HR in the shower and don’t suffer any irritation.
I would highly recommend the FitBit Charge HR to a visually impaired user. FitBit achieves something that only a few products are able to, be accessible out of the box. That is especially impressive when you realise it is a mass consumer device and not something specifically made for the visually impaired community. The issues that the FitBit Charge HR does suffer from are all software issues and more precisely issues conveying complex imformation. This is something that is not limited to FitBit and is more a comment on the industries focus on infographics, I would like to see a nice balance between prose and infographics. This could easily be achieved by indepth labelling of elements, as VoiceOver could then give the vital context provided by the graphical elements. However, because this is software, these issues could certainly be addressed in the future and even if not, the device is incredibly accessible as it is. Therefore, if you are looking for a fitness tracking device I highly recommend the FitBit Charge HR.