Have you heard of the AIRO? It is the latest device in the sea of activity and “well-being” trackers. This one deserves a little bit more attention because it claims to be able to automatically track not only sleep and exercise like the Fitbit and Up, but also stress and food intake. For the latter, the device is supposed to have an embedded spectrometer that can break down the nutritional intake of food consumed – this is what makes it stand apart. All in all, the AIRO is what the millions of people interested in tracking have been waiting for, the one wearable that tracks the key pillars of health: diet, stress, sleep and exercise. But is it real?
I am extremely skeptical. It all sounds good in theory, but in practice it’s a completely different story. First, there is food. Friends who are in the biomedical engineering space tell me that detecting “metabolites” through spectrometry is a promising direction, but unlikely to be developed enough to be productized by 2014. And based on my own research, I question the value of obtaining this information automatically. There is increasing evidence that when it comes to food, it is critically important that people are actively engaged in the food journaling process. Awareness of what one eats, and not just background data collection, is what leads to behavior change.
Second, there is stress. There are lots of researchers working on ways to capture stress level in naturalistic settings. Galvanic skin response, heart rate variability (HRV) and voice features have been used to estimate emotional state. This is not my area of my expertise so I cannot comment in much detail, but again, it is a really hard problem, particularly when it comes to evaluating the technology. Stress is highly subjective and variable from person to person and not all forms of stress should be perceived negatively.
Finally, we have sleep. Some believe that an accurate hypnogram can only be obtained through polysomnography. Thus, the notion that a smartphone app or wristband can wake you up at the perfect time so you feel as refreshed and rested as possible might be fundamentally flawed. A more detailed examination of this topic can be found here.
I hope the AIRO team proves me wrong on all these points.
One of the reasons why activity recognition in the home is interesting to me is because it has the potential to enable so many important health applications, such as remote monitoring. There are many people, especially older adults, who would much rather stay at home while battling chronic diseases than move into an assisted living facility or hospital. But without a range of supportive services, which are often prohibitively expensive, it becomes virtually impossible to properly care for someone in their own home.
There is a wide range of commercial products centered on supporting independent living, from fall detection to medication compliance systems. One piece of the puzzle that is missing is a communication channel that offers caregivers a holistic view of an individual’s patterns of daily living at home. This would enable caregivers to observe everyday behaviors on a regular basis and hopefully anticipate problems.
One type of sensor goes on pill boxes, while another measures whether people are eating and drinking on a regular schedule by indicating when refrigerator or pantry doors are opened, both using accelerometers. A third variety is a key fob with a Bluetooth Low Energy transmitter than lets the server know when the user is out of range, typically 125 meters (about 410 feet). This measure acts as a proxy for indicating when the person has left home.
Researchers have attempted to use sensor networks this way, with moderate success. For example, Tapia took the idea of sensors in the environment and showed how one could learn more about an individual’s high-level activities from low-level sensors. Rantz and Skubic demonstrated how a sensor network could be used as an early-warning system for conditions such as urinary tract infection in older adults. The only limitation of these system has been the large number of sensors required, sometimes in the order of 50-80 sensors per home. That is too many.
It’s clear that there is room for sensor networks in health monitoring at home, and Lively is betting that a few strategically located wireless sensors can tell us most of what we need to know about someone’s well-being. I do agree with this direction, and I am now curious to see how the company does in the future, including whether it raises significant funds through Kickstarter, which is a good indicator of how demand exists for a product like this.
The last few weeks have been quite eventful in my “offline” world, thus the lack of posts here. With the end of the semester coming to a close, and a little bit more breathing room, I felt that this was a good time to return to blogging after another small hiatus. And if the posts are back on, why not talk about activity trackers? I’m sure I’ve written about this new category of wearable devices before, but there has been a flurry of activity as of late, so it makes sense to go back and see what is new in the space.
There are three announcements that I find deserving of a mention here. The first one has to do with Weigh Watchers. The company’s calorie-counting program has been very successful at helping people lose weight over the years, and I know people who have been very grateful for it. But up until a couple of months ago, all that the Weight Watchers’ program could account for was food and calorie intake, in a fairly static sense. Obviously, that’s just part of the story. A person who has a very active lifestyle and wants to lose weight will likely need to eat more than someone who doesn’t exercise regularly and also wants to lose a few pounds. Now, thanks to a partnership with Philips, Weight Watchers will let members track their own activity with ActiveLink, “a small, simple accelerometer-equipped device”, and swap “activity points” for “food points”. The truth is, activity tracking devices fit a program like Weight Watchers’ like a glove. In retrospect, it’s surprising that a partnership like this is only materializing now.
The second piece of news is the release of yet another activity tracking device, the Misfit Shine. All the details about it can be found in its fund-raising page, so I won’t go into the details here. It’s very nice looking, seemingly sturdy, and apparently uploads data to a smartphone using a unique protocol sans Bluetooth, pairing or wires. Intriguing to say the least. I will need to explore this further. The bad news is that after losing a Fitbit or two, I’ve been hoping that a form factor will emerge for these devices that makes them a bit more difficult to disappear. The wristband is interesting and might work for me but I haven’t tried it yet. Lately, I’ve been thinking that what would work well for me is an activity tracker in the form factor of a credit card, that I can simply leave in my wallet. I would be unlikely to lose it, and if I did, I would probably have bigger problems to worry about.
Finally, to wrap-up this news round-up post, the Jawbone Up activity tracker wristband has been redesigned and is back after a disastrous product launch that forced to company to stop selling the device and go back to the drawing board. I don’t have any other info on how well the Up works now and what has changed exactly.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of activity tracking devices to me is not that they exist, but how many companies are betting heavily in this category of health and wellness. On one hand, in my circle of friends, I do see a FitBit here and a Nike FuelBand there. I would expect that, since my colleagues are very tuned in to consumer health devices, like I am. On the other hand, I don’t see a lot of mainstream demand for these products, at least not yet. I am very curious to see how this unfolds. It will be certainly great to see this bet pay off, since it will mean more people becoming healthier and more aware of their activities.
Lately, as part of my research in indirect health inference through infrastructure-mediated sensing techniques, I’ve been investigating options for remote data acquisition. It would be wonderful if I could find a platform that let me take an analog signal as input, send it through a pipeline of signal processing and machine learning algorithms, and submit results to a remote server.
At the high-end, there are netbooks. Any BestBuy can sell you a complete netbook system for less than $300. For certain applications in data sensing, processing and communication, $300 is good enough. Unfortunately, a netbook is a bit too big and power hungry. Not to mention that its screen, graphics card and other features might go unused, inflating the cost of the device unnecessarily considering the job it’s been designated to do.
At the other end of the spectrum are platforms like the Arduino, which is small, inexpensive, but might not provide the processing power one might need. Are there any other alternatives? There are plenty of single-board computers out there, one of which is the Chumby Hacker Board, or CHB for short.
Recently, I’ve been following the development of an ARM-based platform called Raspberry Pi. The goal is to develop the cheapest possible computer with a basic level of functionality, for around $25. The team is already showing a prototype board, the size of a credit card, running Ubuntu:
Lots of details can be found here and they are expected to be shipping in December. I am really looking forward to experimenting with them.
Not too long ago, medical professionals were arguing over compensation for engaging with patients through email. Today, in Detroit, Rite-Aid is piloting a service where patients pay $45 for a 10-minute video consultation with a doctor, who can even tele-prescribe over the Internet. You can choose what kind of doctor to talk to (specialist vs. generalist), and remote diagnostics is on the way.
This story also refers to a few online services that also provide video consultations.
These new channels are palliative measures towards fixing a broken system. It’s unclear what kind of impact they will have on families struggling to pay for healthcare. Probably none, since they are too expensive. But at least it shows that alternative approaches are being tried and technology explorations are under way. it’s a step in the right direction.
I’ve recently found out about Practice Fusion’s Medical Research Data set and have visited the site where the data is hosted a couple of times. It seems like an interesting data set, which was the basis of a competition, etc. However, now the ad critters that live within my browser have decided that I am interested in Practice Fusion and are showing me their ads no matter where I go on the web. There is certainly an ad network running behind the scenes, trying to do the contextually “smart” thing. But this example illustrates the naiveté of the web ad industry.