Looking for a last-minute Christmas gift? You might want to consider one from the growing group of wearable personal metrics devices. The idea is that data and feedback about our movement and our consumption can make us smarter, more motivated, and more competitive with ourselves and others. It’s something I’m totally open to after a Prius real-time MPG readout made me drive more efficiently and using the Nike+ kit and the RunKeeper iPhone app made me run faster.
Kevin Kelly’s The Quantified Self has an extensive list of resources and tools, but among the gadgets you can buy now or soon are the Philips DirectLife ($86.45 including four months of membership), the Bodybugg (weight-loss focused, $199 including six-month subscription), Fitbit* ($99, expected to ship Jan. 31st), Zeo (sleep-focused, $249 plus more for coaching) and WakeMate (sleep-focused, $49.99) Uber reviewer David Pogue recent compared the Fitbit and DirectLife and said he thought the DirectLife would do a better job of helping a user get in shape.
This week we talked to the folks behind WakeMate, a San Francisco startup that came up through the Y Combinator program. Co-founders Arun Gupta and Greg Nemeth, former high school doubles tennis partners who both dropped out of college earlier this year to work on the company, say their first batch of devices won’t ship until Jan. 25th, but if you order now they’ll print you up a gift certificate to give your Christmas present recipient. What’s cool about WakeMate is it doesn’t just passively track data for later analysis and advice; it monitors your sleep via a motion-sensor device strapped to your wrist, and wakes you up when you are sleeping most lightly. (This works by setting off your cell phone alarm via Bluetooth, and happens in the 20 minutes prior to your hard-stop wake-up time.)
There’s no doubt these cutely named gadgets will soon be offered alongside all the other wacky gimmicks in SkyMall — Gupta and Nemeth say they want to aim higher: an infomercial! — but there’s scientific evidence that exposing data about our bodies makes our brains take notice. Feedback gives us personal and social pressure to improve, as detailed in a recent Wired feature on Nike+ and the phenomenon of “Living by Numbers.” In a famous example of a set of studies on worker productivity at the Hawthorne Works plant in Illinois, all sorts of tweaks to the work environment, positive and negative, improved productivity. A later reinterpretation of the studies found that really mattered was that workers knew there was a study going on.
The gist of the idea is that people change their behavior—often for the better—when they are being observed (which is why it’s sometimes called the observer effect). Those workers at Western Electric didn’t build more relays because there was more or less light or because they had more or fewer breaks. The Hawthorne effect posits that they built more relays simply because they knew someone was keeping track of how many relays they built.
To that end, many of the gadgets are accompanied by web sites that offer troves of data, coaching and social features. So maybe you should really buy two as a Christmas present, keep one for yourself, and link up yours and the lucky recipient’s profiles online.
*Disclosure: Fitbit is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, founder of Giga Omni Media, is also a venture partner at True.