Sports came to a screeching halt with the onset of covid-19, but as the NBA looks to resume the 2019-2020 season at Disney World on July 30, it looks like the Oura Ring may be a part of plans to keep players safe.
On Tuesday, the National Basketball Players Association sent a memo — which was originally obtained by The Athletic — to its members detailing its “Life Inside the Bubble” plan. For the most part, it outlines virtual workouts, social distancing protocols, rigorous testing regimens, and travel guidelines. That said, it also notes that players will have the option of wearing two types of wearables. The first is a “proximity alarm” that will notify players if they spend more than five seconds within 1.83 m of another person. The second is the Oura Ring.
The Oura Ring is significant as it’s one of several wearables currently being studied by researchers as a potential tool for early detecting covid-19. The smart ring is designed to help track sleep, it does so by also measuring body temperature, respiratory rate, heart rate variability, and resting heart rate. Back in April, the company behind the ring announced it was teaming up with the West Virginia University Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute (RNI) for a national study, as well as the University of California San Francisco. It’s also been included in Stanford University’s study on early detection.
A Gizmodo investigation into whether wearables can actually detect covid-19 before symptoms appear was promising, but ultimately inconclusive. However, earlier this month, RNI announced that preliminary results from observing 600 healthcare professionals and first responders indicated it could detect illness up to three days before symptoms, with a 90% accuracy rate. Again, promising and intriguing results, but it’s unclear how specifically the Oura Ring can differentiate between illnesses like covid-19 and similar respiratory viruses like the flu.
Still, there are also major differences between NBA players and the average consumer. The biggest thing here is that players who choose to use the Oura Ring — the memo says it is optional, and not required — will have access to regular covid-19 testing. In that instance, giving these rings to NBA players may provide more data for researchers to work with.
As for who exactly gets to see a player’s health data collected from the ring? A tweet from ESPN writer Zach Lowe notes that the only thing team staff will have access to is an “illness probability score.” That tracks somewhat with the digital platform RNI said it created, which involves a combination of an app, the Oura Ring, and artificial intelligence algorithms. RNI’s press release makes no mention of a probability score, but it’s a metric that aligns with what researchers have told Gizmodo would be likely for predictive covid-19 software based on wearable data.
At the risk of sounding repetitive, the average person should not take this to mean the Oura Ring, or any other fitness tracker, can reliably detect covid-19. Diagnostic abilities need to be FDA cleared and even if the Oura Ring proves successful among NBA players, these are elite athletes with access to regular covid-19 tests and immediate medical assistance that the rest of us don’t have right now. Cash-rich organisations like the NBA can afford to implement more experimental methods because they’re also taking place alongside medically verified ones. If you dig the overall concept of an Oura Ring, by all means, getting one might help you sleep better at night. Just don’t expect it to be a first-line defence against covid-19.