Everywhere you look these days, there seems to be yet another sensor-enabled device or mobile app that wants to monitor everything from your heart rate and posture to your brain waves and breathing patterns.
But mainstream adoption of technology that helps people better understand their bodies won’t just happen because of more sophisticated sensors or engineers who are smarter about manipulating data. According to Dr. Leslie Saxon, head of the University of Southern California’s Center for Body Computing, biometric data tracking will have its “iPod moment” and spread to the masses when it’s packaged with experiences that improve the way we receive healthcare, communicate with friends and even enjoy movies and music.
“Everybody, right now, is so focused on the sensor and the engineering and nobody’s really focused enough, in my view, on the experience,” she said. “That’s going to make the products that hit the home-runs, that scale to millions and millions of people.”
Sensor-enabled products in your kitchen, living room, garage
So far, various forms of biometric data technology have made their biggest inroads among elite athletes, chronic disease patients and tech-savvy fitness enthusiasts. For example, wearable ECG and Bluetooth sensors help NFL teams gauge players’ reaction times, recovery speeds and physical preparedness. FDA-backed wrist monitors are beginning to help doctors track patients’ blood pressure, heart rate and other vital signs no matter where they might be. And consumer devices like Fitbits (see disclosure), Nike Fuelbands and Jawbone’s UP are motivating people to pay more attention to their activity level and weight.
But Saxon, who will be speaking at GigaOM’s Mobilize conference in October, believes that, in the future, biometric sensors will be embedded into everything from our earbuds to our cars to our refrigerators. And that ubiquity won’t just lead to a more accurate and complete health record, it will add a new dimension to all kinds of day-to-day interactions, she said.
“Once you start to understand your biometrics and understand that they enrich your daily life in some way… you’ll start to expect that the experience gets richer and richer the more data you have,” she said.
Biometric data meets Instagram?
For example, at USC’s Body Computing conference next month, Saxon plans to debut a new app that combines biometric data with photo-sharing. The idea, she said, is to take an already popular and authentic way of communicating and enhance it with information that “shows how you’re feeling in a different way.”
To those outside the so-called “quantified self” world, appending your heart rate to an Instagram might sound kind of, well, strange. But, in a sense, it’s showing, rather than telling, that a particular moment made your heart race or helped you calm down. And it’s worth remembering that people are already starting to share other kinds of body-centric data, like distances run, calories burned and food consumed, on social networks.
Another kind of experience that is beginning to get a biometric boost is entertainment. This week on GigaOM’s Internet of Things podcast, my colleague Stacey Higginbotham interviewed an artist who combines biometric data with musical performance. And a startup called BioBeats aims to develop apps and content that use biometric data to shape a media experience. Its experimental smartphone app, Pulse, generates music based on the activity of your heartbeat and future plans include movies and music that adapt to your mood, as well as clinical tools that gauge a patient’s stress level and then deliver appropriate sounds and messages.
At USC, Saxon is also working on technology that literally puts biometric tracking technology into the driver’s seat. With BMW, they’re developing sensor-embedded steering wheels that could check a driver’s heart rate, blood sugar and other vital signs as soon as they turn the car on. Other researchers and car makers, including Nissan and Ford, are using biometric data to detect drowsy or drunk drivers.
For Saxon, cars are a key area of focus because of the amount of time people spend in them, but also because automobile technology already does for cars what digital health hopes it can do for people: it provides ongoing performance metrics, warning signs about problems and clues for how to fix them.
“To me, the car is the gold standard of what I’d like this to become,” she said.
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.
Image by Maridav via Shutterstock.