For decades, scientists, engineers and designers have been attaching all manner of digital devices to human beings. Their quest is called wearable computing. Today, the smartphone makes computers essentially wearable and soon-to-be ubiquitous, but there are still plenty of uses for specialized wearable devices, especially in the healthcare field, and there’s one class of device that seems to be on its way to mass acceptance: the fitness monitor. It’s a handy tool for millions of people who made New Year’s resolutions to lose weight.
One of the pioneers in the field, BodyMedia Inc. in Pittsburgh, has just introduced an update of its BodyMedia FIT system that not only tracks physical activity but also provides personalized feedback. The system includes software from IBM that is most often used by businesses–but in this case helps individuals improve their well being. “This is a big step for us,” says Ivo Stivoric, the chief technology officer at BodyMedia and one of its founders. “This helps consumers connect the dots. They don’t just see the data. They get recommendations on what they can do to get back on track.”
The system demonstrates the potential for a combination of sensor technology, analytics software and easy-to-use interfaces to unlock the mysteries of the human body and produce insights that people can immediately put to use to make themselves healthier and happier.
BodyMedia got its back in the late 1990s, after Stivoric and Astro Teller met on the soccer fields at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Teller was working on a PhD in artificial intelligence and Stivoric, an industrial designer, was running the university’s wearable computing lab. Their initial idea, which they conceived along with co-founders Chris Pacione and Chris Kasabach, was to create sensor-packed garments for use in healthcare monitoring. While that’s still one of the company’s markets, the main focus is now on consumers.
The company is one of the leaders in the market for fitness monitors, both with its own brands and with devices and software that it provides to other companies, including 24 Hour Fitness, Jenny Craig and Jillian Michaels. One of its devices was featured on The Biggest Loser TV show. BodyMedia FIT consists of an armband monitor, online activity manager, wristband display and downloadable applications for mobile devices. The system tracks key metrics that affect a person’s health, including the number of steps taken, the intensity of physical activity, calorie burn, sleep duration and sleep quality. Rather than just using a pedometer, which measures activity on a single axis, the system uses a 3-axis accelerometer, which tracks motion in any direction. The device contains three other sensors, as well: a temperature sensor, a galvanic skin response sensor and a heat flux sensor.
The feedback function is an important advance because it turns data gathered by the sensors into useful insights and advice. The feature was developed by Summa, a technology services company in Pittsburgh, using IBM Decision Management software. The software sizes up a person’s data, determines whether they’re meeting their goals and suggests things they can do to meet them before the end of the day. The system can be customized to reflect the fitness philosophy of BodyMedia partners. Over time, BodyMedia expects the system to become more and more personalized.
For Stivoric, this is just the beginning. BodyMedia is working on new designs that will turn the wearable devices into fashion statements. “We want it to be so cool that you’ll wear it as a badge of honor. You’ll want to show people that you’re taking care of yourself,” he says. Stivoric also sees a great potential for using the data BodyMedia collects to classify people according to their “lifestyle signatures” and make wellness and disease prevention recommendations based on the health outcomes for people who are like them. “We’re helping to kick off a revolution,” he says. “We’re revolutionizing healthcare by giving people the tools they need to take care of themselves.”
This is a payoff from all those years of tinkering by the pioneers of wearable computers.