Digital Life

License article

Tech giants gambling on health technology

When pharmacist Thuan Vuu plays basketball, he laces his feet into a pair of Nike Hyperdunk+ shoes fitted with a sensor that sends data to his iPhone. He can see how far he’s run and how high he’s jumped, and by setting himself goals – he aims for at least two kilometres per game – he can not only play to win, but also have a benchmark for a successful workout.

The trim and cheerful 29-year-old from Fairfield, Sydney, also has a Fitbit activity tracker, which measures steps taken, calories burnt and movement during sleep. His phone’s SleepBot app records sleeping activity, a Wahoo cadence meter reports how hard he pedals his pushie, and an Adidas miCoach chest strap and foot pod log his heart rate, step pace and G forces while training.

He logs his spending on and has bought the Meitrack device for his car to track his driving habits. He weighs himself on Aria Wi-Fi smart scales – and lost six kilograms by noting and varying his diet – and is thinking of buying the Cue at-home lab kit, which tests for five factors including vitamin D levels.

Vuu shows me his Withings Pulse, a device that can be worn like a watch. He places his finger on its sensor, and after a pause it flashes 71bpm for his heart rate, and 99 per cent for his blood oxygen level.

‘‘That’s pretty high,’’ he says of his heart rate, confessing he’s not yet found a use for his blood oxygen level. ‘‘When I wake up it’s 55 to 60. The higher the pulse, the more stressed you are. By putting a number to it you get more understanding of it.’’ He uses the information to see how hard he’s working out, and if he needs to up the intensity. It’s also given him an insight into his general level of health – he sees a lot of sick people as a pharmacist and wants to stay well.

Vuu has a long way to go with his about $1000 of gear before emulating American Chris Dancy, who has up to 700 systems recording data about himself, including a smart mattress cover, or graphic designer Nicholas Felton, who produces an annual report of his life. But they are all part of a movement called lifelogging, where people record aspects of their lives, helped by specialist tech becoming cheaper and more powerful.


Microsoft researcher Gordon Bell began a project called MyLifeBits in 2004 where he digitally stored ‘‘a lifetime’s store of everything’’, including pictures taken automatically from a camera worn around his neck, with everything searchable. He says there are different kinds of lifelogging, with visual or audio capture at the ‘‘extreme’’ end, then professional logging, for example, recording all web pages visited with Evernote, and personal logging the use of social media.

Wearable cameras such as Autographer and Narrative Clip, which clip to your clothes and take snaps every 30 seconds or so, took another decade to hit the market. British designer Lulu Guinness launched a $1250 handbag with in-built automatic camera on July 30. The privacy implications could be considerable, especially if married with the NameTag app, which developers want to release here –  they say it can retrieve someone’s public online presence from one picture. Vuu has ordered a photo logger called Parashoot, which takes a picture every minute – he thinks it’ll be a handy hands-free camera on holidays. Bell says visual logs can help people with fading or impaired memories to recall events – the MemeXerciser system, designed at Carnegie Mellon University in America, is a ''cognitive coach'' for Alzheimer’s sufferers.

The health-tracking wearable technology Vuu adopted has been more hype than hit to date, with just 2.9 million devices sold worldwide in the first quarter of the year, compared to 300 million smartphones. Now Apple is said to be gambling big on the concept, with more than 10 health-linked sensors rumoured for its new watch due for release this year.

Vuu is a member of the Sydney Quantified Self group, the local chapter of a global group at the vanguard of using self-tracking for self-improvement, so the gadget fan doesn’t mind spending six hours a week reviewing his data. But to hit the big time, health lifelogging surely needs to be easier to use.

‘‘The convenience factor drives the adoption,’’ says MIT graduate Peter Klement, co-founder of the Sydney-based iHealth4Me startup, which aims to turn data into health recommendations, like a computerised personal health coach. ‘‘The core piece is the analytics.’’ He says the challenge has been working out how different factors work together – he tells how research is showing DNA sequencing can indicate the best type of exercise – and says a limited test will begin in about September. Klement thinks most of their clients will be corporate: there’s interest from Medibank, and he thinks HR departments may use it to see if health investments they make such as gym memberships are paying off.

Mike Halligan and personal trainer David Banks, from Melbourne, co-founded the BodyWise app, which provides health guidance based on information from Fitbit and the Jawbone wristband.

‘‘If you give this data to a personal trainer they’ll be able to recommend dozen of things, all based on things that are quantifiable and put into a formula,’’ Halligan says. ‘‘Why not have an app that can do the same thing, scientifically and medically based, at a point they need it?’’

BodyWise can make 40 recommendations, including hydration tailored to the intensity of your workout, or make a judgment on how many carbs you’re eating based on your activity. Could it replace a personal trainer? ‘‘Yes, in some ways, in others it complements them – they might see a client for 90 minutes each week, and the rest of the time have no control over them.’’ Research into health tracking shows interesting results.

Professor Judy Kay, from the University of Sydney’s school of information technology, says the gadgets are more than just boys' toys, though. "I would expect wearables would appeal to women at least as much as men – given the uptake of other ways to enhance health – if they're easy to use and to wear, like the Fitbit."

Kay says people who share data tended to record more steps on their Fitbit. She suggests such behaviour could be innate: ‘‘I don’t know if you’ve seen an average primary school classroom but gold stars work really well. You’ve got four teams and if you do something really good the team gets a star. We’re not so different from our kids.’’

Vuu has a soccer-playing mate who runs twice as far as he does during basketball: ‘‘In a way you do get envious. You’re seeing and comparing if you’re doing as much work as others.’’

Kay says she feels "cheated" if she forgets to wear her Fitbit when she goes for a walk. "Ten thousand steps that didn’t get counted!’’ Turning tasks into games can help people who have suffered a cardiac event stick to a health regime, for example. Kay – who thinks health tracking will go mainstream – says she’s surprised how addictive it can be.

Clinical psychologist Leslie Posen, from Melbourne, measures his blood glucose and heart-rate levels several times a day, and is about to buy wearables that will track other body functions, such as breathing. He uses the information to help him focus and perform better.

‘‘As the idea says, you can’t manage what you can’t measure,’’ he says. Posen now measures how his patients feel, rather than asking them to estimate it themselves.

‘‘We’re going to undergo a paradigm shift in how we practise over the next 10 years. We change technology and sometimes unwittingly the technology changes us.’’

Bell predicts the main use of self-tracking will be in recalling the past. He says the question to ask is: Will lifelogging give you a gain? ‘‘The financial costs are generally so low that the big costs are human time costs.’’ He was due to meet a new puppy later that day, and would use his Basis activity tracking watch to test whether it helped lower his heart rate, as puppies are supposed to.