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August 28, 2013

Can Body Hacking Boost Performance?

I spent a year tracking my health and fitness using more than 65 devices and apps. Here’s what I found.

Leslie Ziegler is a designer & writer, formerly at Rock Health.

I am not a data scientist. This may be obvious to anyone forced to watch me attempt pivot tables in Excel, but it became highly inconvenient when I attempted to quantify my entire life.

Just 11 percent of adults in the U.S. track their health. Last year, I became one of them. It was a year—365 long days and nights—spent sampling myriad apps, sensors and medical tests and devices, and logging all the information into a massive spreadsheet. My impetus was born of a personal journey—a chronic disease diagnosis with no known cause and no cure.

The Journey

I used my smartphone and an assortment of apps and standalone devices to analyze my blood, gather telomere and genomic markers, and track my activities, weight and even my schedule. Data from more than 65 different technologies gave me hope that I would improve my overall health—and regain some of my former competitive running glory. And while just measuring did make a difference, which is consistent with nearly every study done, there just wasn't an easy way to make unexpected connections. No apps, no service featuring on-demand data scientists; nothing but me—and a very complex spreadsheet. 

(photo: Proteus)

Here’s what I learned: My mile splits were no longer on par with my 16-year-old self’s. Eating profusely and not exercising led to weight gain. So did travel and too many meetings. And so on. Not exactly mind-blowing, is it? 

Betting on a Quantifiable Future

Tracking an isolated metric, whether it’s steps, calories or the speed of your last run, is easy, and the options, mostly mobile, are nearly unlimited. Every other week a gadget joins the sensor market with something newer, smarter and sleeker. Increasingly, these technologies share data across different platforms, through proprietary APIs and feeds. Yet, the output still does not bridge the divide to actionable and timely: Notifications are not delivered before you know you need them, only afterward. A shift toward a more proactive, seamless and predictive delivery model needs to happen in order for these products to really go mainstream.

The funding environment supports huge growth in this sector, and predicts a rosy future. Venture capital put a reported $700 million dollars into wearable and embedded devices in the first half of 2012 alone, consistent with ABI’s projections that show 485 million wearable computing devices will ship by 2018. And let's not forget about smartphones, a recent study notes that more than 56% of all American adults own one. With a constant influx of new features, smartphones provide a far more frictionless experience than extra hardware. After all, who goes anywhere without their phone? With the exception of my wireless scale, which has no mobile analog, my adherence to apps was much higher than standalone hardware, no matter what I was tracking.

(photo: Withings scale)

For now, the cost and form factor is holding back widespread adoption of health and sports tracking. A $100+ price point for standalone hardware just doesn't work for most, and the format and input needs to be less difficult and time intensive. That piece of my quantified year is missing: Just how many hours did I spend inputting meals, tracking individual activity streams, and attempting to make sense of it? 

Products of the future will be frictionless, doing all of the work behind the scenes without a peep, on demand, from anywhere. No hours inputting meals, no finger pricks, no strange complicated heart rate apparatus; just sensors in our car seats, clothes, phones, homes and, if Peter Ha is correct, implants that go straight into the human body—which, for the record, I support fully and will unashamedly elbow others out of the way to try. 

Futuristic Advances Today

Products supporting the new age of passive tracking and meaningful data are already emerging. MC10 makes flexible, ultra thin, nearly invisible sensors that do everything from tracking hydration levels for athletes to wound monitoring for post-surgical cases. The CheckLight, built in partnership with Reebok, helps high-performance athletes prevent concussions through a tiny impact sensor. Built into a small cap, it shows impact severity and the number of impacts so athletes from high school to the pros know when to stop. Moves, a company out of Helsinki, built an app that runs in the background of your phone to seamlessly track your life, activity, and calories and where you’ve been without you having to do a thing.

(photo: MC10 sensor)

The big existing players—Withings, Jawbone, Nike, etc.—are also making big strides in bridging the gap to meaningful and relevant data delivery, continuing to build and refine their popular products, accompanying software, and allowing third party developers to play on top of their platforms. 

On that note, it's not easy being first to market, and what we're learning from this initial generation of products makes future, more passive versions possible. The amount of data gathered is staggering—as I learned from my year-long experiment—but without a means to interpret it and deliver it well, future growth will be limited.

But now seriously, guys, who do I have to bribe to get my implant and data scientist?


This article is commissioned by Qualcomm Incorporated. The views expressed are the author’s own.

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