The Oura Ring was a sleep-tracking hit. Can the next one be even more?

Oura wants to be a media company, an activity tracker and even a way to know you're sick before you feel sick.

Oura Ring

Over the last few years, the Oura Ring has become one of the most recognizable wearables this side of the Apple Watch.

Photo: Oura

Oura CEO Harpreet Rai swears he didn't know Kim Kardashian was a fan. He was as surprised as anyone when she started posting screenshots from the Oura app to her Instagram story, and got into a sleep battle with fellow Oura user Gwyneth Paltrow. Or when Jennifer Aniston revealed that Jimmy Kimmel got her hooked on Oura … and how her ring fell off in a salad. "I am addicted to it," Aniston said, "and it's ruining my life" by shaming her about her lack of sleep. "I think we're definitely seeing traction outside of tech," Rai said. "Which is cool."

Over the last couple of years, Oura's ring (imaginatively named the Oura Ring) has become one of the most recognizable wearables this side of the Apple Watch. The company started with a Kickstarter campaign in 2015, but really started to find traction with its second-generation model in 2018. It's not exactly a mainstream device — Oura said it has sold more than 500,000 rings, up from 150,000 in March 2020 but still not exactly Apple Watch levels — but it has reached some of the most successful, influential and probably sleep-deprived people in the industry. Jack Dorsey is a professed fan, as is Marc Benioff.

Now, with its third-generation ring, Oura is attempting to go big. The new model looks virtually identical to the last, but has more temperature sensors and memory, and includes new features like period prediction and ongoing heart-rate monitoring that will appeal to people who care about more than just their sleep. It also comes with a new library of content, meant to help users make more sense of all that data and actually live a little better.

"When we talk to customers," Rai said, "we have to boil it down. One, is this stuff accurate? In the early days of wearables, activity tracking wasn't really accurate. It's gotten better. But the more important thing is, OK, what do I do with all this data?" He cited Larry Page's famous Toothbrush Test, which says a great product is something you use twice a day that makes your life better. But not everyone cares about the same things, so Oura's working on expanding its feature set. "We think wearables are moving from activity and steps into health," he said.

The COVID-19 pandemic was something of an inflection point for Oura, which spent much of the last year or so working on studies to see if its rings could be a tool for early detection of the virus. "Most people are seeing they're getting sick two, three days before they feel symptoms," Rai said. He said the same is true for tracking periods and fertility. In this carefully regulated industry, he's careful not to use words like "diagnose" or "treat," and instead likens the Oura Ring to a check-engine light. "It doesn't say you have a flat tire, it doesn't say you can't drive," he said. "It's a warning light." Still, over time, Rai said he hopes to be more proactive and more helpful.

Even without diagnosing or treating anything, Oura's working on turning that data into action. The "so what?" question has plagued activity trackers for years, as they've struggled to be useful beyond telling users what they largely already know. For Oura, that starts with content. "We have some meditations and sleep sounds" in the Oura app, Rai said, "but you're going to see that library expand dramatically." Oura has a content team now, and is working with partners on everything from guided walks to straightforward educational videos. "The half-life of caffeine is eight hours, right?" Rai said. "So let's tell you what that means, and why drinking coffee after 2 p.m. is a bad idea … your heart rate is jacked, and you're not going to sleep."

Rai would like Oura to ultimately be even more prescriptive, to tell users exactly what to do and when to be healthier. Every health and wearables company wants that. But until the data and algorithms are good enough — and crucially, in that early stage where users are still deciding whether to commit to using a device long term — educational content can bridge the gap.

Increasingly, though, Rai said he's finding that people are willing to do the work to be healthier. "I think better health matters for all of us, you know?" he said. COVID-19 made personal and public health front of mind for virtually everyone, while also changing many people's routines and lives for good.

With the new Ring comes a new business model for Oura. Its service now costs $5.99 a month, though buyers will get six free months with their purchase. (Existing owners get free memberships for life.) This is an increasingly common approach, both in the industry in general and in wearables in particular: Amazon's Halo comes with a $3.99 monthly subscription, Fitbit Premium is $9.99 a month, and Apple's Fitness+ is $9.99 a month and requires an Apple Watch. Rai said this approach means Oura doesn't have to rush to put out new hardware, and can focus on the whole experience. "I don't think of us as a hardware or software company," he said. "I think of us as a health company enabled by technology."

Sleep tracking is still the thing Rai and Oura care most about, and the thing the new ring purports to do best. But as more people begin to understand how health affects their life — and how their life affects their health — Rai thinks Oura has a chance to put a ring on many more fingers. He has long believed that the ring is better, both aesthetically and functionally, than a wristband. The last ring won design awards, and for Rai's money there's still nothing better out there. Now the question is how much Oura can do with it.

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