Intelligent Machines

Microsoft’s Wristband Would Like to Be Your Life Coach

Microsoft is working to combine biometric data collected by its new wristband with information from your calendar and contacts to make smarter observations.

Wearable technology may help people to live a healthier life.

Microsoft’s first foray into wearable activity tracking will go beyond collecting and analyzing exercise and sleep patterns to, say, telling you how stressed out you get before an important meeting and offering breathing exercises to calm you down.

The Microsoft Band uses a number of sensors to track activity and biometrics, and the company is working to draw insights from how such measurements relate to things like your meetings and contacts.

Released in October, the Microsoft Band costs $200 and houses a variety of sensors including a microphone, a GPS location sensor, motion sensors, an optical sensor that measures heart rate, a sensor that tracks skin conductance, which can reveal levels of stress, and even a UV sensor to calculate sun exposure, all encased in a black, rubbery bracelet with a rectangular touch screen. The band communicates with your smartphone via the Microsoft Health app, which itself communicates with Microsoft’s cloud-computing service to analyze the data you collect.

Many fitness bands and smart watches that can track your activities are already on the market, and devices like the Band and the soon-to-be-released Apple Watch—which also uses an optical sensor to determine heart rate—seem poised to deliver new ways to collect and use your biometric data. During a recent interview at Microsoft’s Redmond, Washington, headquarters, Matt Barlow, general manager of marketing for new devices, said the company is investigating the kinds of insights it can share with users by matching up biometric data with other sources of information like their calendar or contacts to show things like which events or people may stress them out.

In the coming months, the Microsoft Health app is poised to gain the ability to compare calendar or contact information with your physical state as measured by the band—your heart rate or skin conductance level, for instance—so the app could nudge you with detailed observations about how those things might relate. For instance, the app might send you an alert like, “I noticed you have a meeting with Susan tomorrow, and last time you met with her your heart rate went up 20 beats per minute and stayed elevated for an hour. How about trying this deep-breathing exercise that you can use with the Band?”

Initially, these kinds of scenarios are expected to become possible through an integration with Microsoft Office services, though over time it may branch out to include other services as well.

Emil Jovanov, an associate professor at the University of Alabama in Huntsville who directs a lab for real-time physiological monitoring and codirects a lab aimed at tracking mobile health and wellness, says that the types of sensors in emerging wearables are generally accurate enough to provide these kinds of insights.

He cautions, however, that trade-offs have to be made between accuracy, power consumption, weight, and size in order for these devices to be convenient to use. And he notes that optical sensors, such as the one used in the Microsoft Band, need good contact with the skin to work reliably, which is harder to achieve if you’ve got hairy arms or wear your wristband too loosely.

Accuracy is still a challenge for companies making wearable devices for tracking biometric signals and activities—measurements tend to vary between devices, and even accurate readings may not always provide a valid measure of sleep patterns or stress. One way the Microsoft team is working on the accuracy of the data that its sensors record is by tracking people as they work out in a gym. It correlates data captured by its wristband there with data recorded by, for example, a machine that measures oxygen consumption.