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Two New Tools for Self-Tracking

A super-watch and sensors that track how often you brush your teeth and walk the dog—among other things.
June 10, 2011

As Nadeem Kassam sauntered down the hall of the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, over Memorial Day weekend, all attention was on his wrist. The museum was host to the first annual Quantified Self conference, a gathering of people who use different tools to record a variety of personal metrics with the goal of improving their health, happiness, and productivity.

Keeping watch: This device, made by Basis, tracks heart rate, temperature, and stress levels.

Kassam was sporting the hottest new fitness monitoring gadget: a device that looks and acts like a watch, but which also measures heart rate and other physiological factors. The monitor, made by self-tracking startup called Basis (which Kassam cofounded), is unique in the number of metrics it tracks; it detects heart rate from the wrist using near infrared spectroscopy, along with both skin and ambient temperature, and galvanic skin response, a measure of sweat on the skin that is linked to both physical activity and stress or excitement. Only a few people have been selected as beta testers for the device, which is slated to come out “soon.”

“We analyze five different data streams and figure out what people are doing in the context of life,” says Julie Wilner, product director at Basis. “High heart rate and temperature probably means someone is exercising.” Low activity, as recorded by the accelerometer, suggests the wearer is sleeping. The device also tracks quality of sleep based on movement during this phase. It combines various measures to calculate the number of calories burned during the course of a day. Accompanying software helps users track and visualize how they are progressing over time. “Are they becoming more active?” says Wilner. “Do they get better or worse sleep on certain day of the week?”

The Basis watch is one of a growing number of new tools that seeks to passively collect data on the wearer’s health and behavior with the aim of helping them to change it for the better. These devices are part of the new movement in self-tracking, enabled by a new generation of wireless devices and smart phone apps to track exercise, nutrition, sleep, mood, and other variables.  “In the past, only a motivated few would keep a diary for more than a few weeks,” says Wilner. “We want to bring these tools to people who wouldn’t do this on their own, people who make New Year’s resolutions but don’t keep them.”

Green Goose is another startup with technology that generated a big buzz at the conference. The company takes a different tack on self-tracking, with cheap, sensor-laden stickers for everything from your toothbrush to the dog’s leash. The sensors have an embedded accelerometer, along with an ultralow power wireless transmitter to send data on the object’s movement to a central base station.

The company’s ultimate idea is to transform healthy behavior into a game. Users can set specific goals—walk the dog twice a day, brush after every meal—and software will award points for successful completion. Green Goose cofounder Brian Krejcarek said at the conference that the company is working on a couple of initial applications for the sensors, but it also plans to partner with others to create a variety of games and other applications. 

“Once you get low enough in price, imagination explodes in terms of what you can do with the sensors,” said Krejcarek.

One of the benefits of Green Goose’s approach is that because the stickers become an embedded part of everyday objects (each sticker has a year’s worth of battery power), they can’t be tossed in a drawer once the novelty wears off. “If you stop looking at the data, you can jump right back in again,” said Krejcarek. They expect to have the stickers on the market next year.

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