It was hard not to stumble into yet another attendee at the Digital-Life-Design conference in Munich, Germany this week adorned with some flavor of wearable devices. From plain vanilla activity trackers like Jawbone’s Up band to guests who thought it was a good idea to take the stage wearing Google Glasses, wearables were in full force.
But for all the chatter of the “quantified self,” few of the folks sporting rubber bracelets on stage, or comparing devices in the hallways in between panels and over dinner and cocktails, could rationally explain how all this data could be used to improve our lives.
That was my question for Hosain Rahman, the CEO of Jawbone, maker of the Up activity monitoring bracelets. In a speech at the DLD conference today, he said the company has gathered a huge mass of data from millions of Up users and are beginning to see some patterns that are, on its face, interesting. But useful? Who knows?
Here’s one nugget: Jawbone has collected data on more than 160 millennia worth of sleeping patterns of its users. (By my math, that’s about 1.4 billion hours; Jawbone doesn’t disclose how many users it has.) That’s enough data to show very clearly, he said, that women on average tend to sleep 20 minutes longer per day than men. He called it “the world’s largest sleep study.”
Great! And if you’re not a sleep specialist, so what?
Rahman acknowledged that making sense of it all is a big challenge. After all, Jawbone’s company slogan is “Track. Understand. Act.” Last year the company hired Monica Rogati, a data scientist from LinkedIn, to craft ways to interpret its deluge of data. “We’re going to go deep a lot deeper on this,” he said. “None of the other companies in this space are as interested in the data science piece of all this in the way that we are.” Until then …
So you can understand my skeptical frame of mind heading into the panel I moderated entitled “Wearables Gone Wild.” Of the four companies on my panel, only one appeared to legitimately solve a problem, while the other three had more squishy goals.
First up was OrCam, the only gadget on stage to actually solve anything — reading if you can’t see. It comes from an Israeli startup called OrCam Technologies. Essentially, it’s a camera system mounted on the frame of a pair of glasses that helps people with vision loss read everything around them. Yonatan Wexler, OrCam’s VP for research and development, demonstrated it on stage. (The demonstration video he played is embedded below.)
A camera is connected to a computing device, which handles the recognition of text that the user encounters in daily life and reads the results aloud via a bone-conduction headphone. The camera takes direction from whatever the user points to, and it is precise enough to tell the difference between pointing to the headline on a newspaper story or the body of the story itself. The system is only available in the US currently and runs about $2,500.
Then there was NeuroOn, a sleep mask being developed by a Polish startup called Intelclinic and funded initially through a Kickstarter campaign. It promises to help users sleep less and be awake more by shifting to a polyphasic sleeping schedule: Rather than sleeping once a day, you’d sleep a few times a day for shorter periods, the net effect being that you’re awake more. CEO Kamil Adamczyk says doing this will add as much as a full day’s worth of extra waking hours each week, which sounds both awful and great.
Going even further, Halo Neuro promised to retrain your brain. Halo, which is still in its earliest stages, is a “wearable device that makes you smart,” said Halo founder Amol Sarva, who has a doctorate in cognitive science and was a co-founder of wireless carrier Virgin USA and, later, of Peek, a maker of inexpensive wireless devices that shut down in 2012. The company’s board of advisors includes former FCC Chairman and current Intel director Reed Hundt.
For all his claims, he didn’t have much to show, so audience members had to rely on their imaginations. It’s a head band, he said, that uses electrical stimulation to train the brain to do certain tasks better and faster. Sarva also promised that the device will be backed by solid science and data based on trials. It will also probably require some regulatory approvals too, especially in the US.
Who doesn’t want to be smarter? The trouble is, cognitive stimulation has had mixed results in clinical trials. Several studies have suggested it can be an effective treatment in elderly patients with dementia. Some studies suggest the treatment can help people learn math and improve motor skills. But there’s also a lot of hand-wringing in the medical community about the long-term effects of zapping your brain with electricity. And doesn’t that sound like shock therapy light?
Rounding out the quartet on my panel was Misfit, the only one making a traditional activity tracker, the Shine, which was being handed out like a party favor at the conference. A collection of sensors built into an aluminum package the size of a stack of two or three quarters, Shine tracks the number of steps you take every day, as well as when you sleep, and reports those stats to a smart phone app that lets you know if you’re hitting your daily goals. In other words, in its current configuration, it does nothing special yet.
The Shine is only the first incarnation of a much bigger vision, said Misfit CEO Sonny Vu. “Inexpensive sensors make it easy to measure so many kinds of activities now,” he says. “We have much bigger plans beyond what the Shine is now. It’s just a first step.”
Vu and every other company in the sector will need to pick up the pace. If my friends’ and co-workers’ habits are any indication, most users will drop that wearable in a few weeks. Being told you’re a slug doesn’t mean you’ll do something about it.
Here’s the video demonstrating OrCam.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.