July 26, 2013
I’m sure there are people who enjoy working out. I just don’t know many of them.
So, no doubt, the people I do know would be thrilled to hear that scientists at the Scripps Research Institute in Florida have made progress in developing a pill that mimics the effects of exercise. Get this: Mice injected with a particular chemical compound lost weight, lowered their cholesterol and expended more energy. And not only did all this occur while they were on a high-fat diet, they also actually were lazier and less active than they had been before they received any injections.
Sounds like magic in a bottle.
Alas, there are caveats. No one, for instance, knows how the human body would react to the compound or what risks it might bring. And the researchers themselves aren’t certain that it’s possible to create any pill that can come close to replicating all of the complex effects and benefits of true physical exercise.
Back to the grind.
The problem is that the fitness business has never been one to crackle with innovation. You can switch the soundtrack or pump up the volume or change the instructor’s outfit, but in the end, there are only so many ways you can run and step and spin.
Still, wearable sensors like the Nike+ Fuelband or Jawbone UP, are starting to make the gathering of data as much a part of exercise as sweating without shame. And now that interplay of workouts and stats-tracking is being taken to another level in a different kind of fitness center, one that its backers want to become the Apple store of health clubs.
That’s some ambition, particularly since pretty much the only equipment inside these clubs will be a line of skinny little walls. Each wall, called a Fitwall, is seven feet tall and has four stationary rungs that serve as footholds and four hand grips. It’s designed for what’s known as “vertical training”–which means you can do all kinds of exercises while you’re hanging from the wall–a “perfect pullup,” for instance, or something named the “cowboy squat.”
Still, this does not a fitness revolution make, right?
Okay, but then you add the data layer. Before he or she gets get on a wall to begin the group workout, each person straps a wearable Bluetooth monitor over their chest. This transmits data throughout the session to an iPad connected to the top of each Fitwall. And that allows each “athlete”–that’s what you’re called here, rather than member–to see how he’s doing compared to past workouts or how he stacks up against people on the walls nearby. To add a gaming element, the data is calibrated, or graded on a curve, so that a white-haired guy can compete with a 22-year-old workout warrior on the next wall.
Bring on the coconut water
But wait, there’s more. The goal is to create an experience unique enough that Fitwall will come to mean more than the thing you hang on. So there’s no front desk with a zesty greeter; each person instead checks in on an iPad, where his or her data is stored. And, apparently, no club will have more than 16 Fitwalls, meaning that counting instructors, there should never be more than a dozen and a half people in the club at one time. When each 40-minute workout is over, the trainers go over everyone’s results, then the session is wrapped with a celebratory shot of coconut water and chilled towels–scented with mint and lavender– all around.
You might say this is not for everyone and you’d be right. It’s no accident that the first Fitwall opened earlier this summer in relentlessly chic La Jolla, California, with more to follow soon in the LA area. Next year, Fitwall plans to tackle Manhattan.
But even if less trendy markets don’t embrace the full Fitwall experience, the company does seem to be on to something, with its infusion of real-time data and body-to-body competition into workout routines. At the very least, it’s something different.
Says Josh Weinstein, one of the Fitwall’s main investors:
“There are so many products out there in the fitness industry that I would call ‘me too’ products. It’s yoga–but with heat. It’s spinning–but the music is louder. There’s so little innovation in the industry and that frustrates us, not just as entrepreneurs, but also people who have a passion for working out.”
Or you can hold out for the pill.
Here’s more recent news on the fitness front:
- Or about long enough to chow down an order of fries: According to researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, four-minute bursts of intense physical activity three times a week is enough for a person to stay fit. A total of 12 minutes of vigorous exercising, they said, was enough to elevate oxygen intake levels, plus lower blood pressure and glucose levels.
- Burn, baby, burn: Japanese scientists have developed a pocket-sized sensor that can tell you if your body is really burning away fat. After a person breathes into the device, it provides a reading of acetone levels in your blood. Acetone is produced when fat is broken down.
- Unless, of course, the thought of exercise gives you stress: And there’s more evidence that physical activity reduces stress. Scientists at Princeton University found that exercise reorganizes the brain so that its response to stress is reduced and anxiety is less likely to interfere with normal brain function. When mice allowed to exercise regularly experienced a stressor — in this case, exposure to cold water — their brains showed a spike in the activity of neurons that shut off excitement in the hippocampus, a region of the brain that regulates anxiety.
- It’s always something: So much for resveratrol, the antioxidant found in red wine, being a magical compound that can help fight aging. Oh, it may still be able to do that, but a new study at the University of Copenhagen has found that for older men, resveratrol can undercut how much good exercise is doing hem.
- Drinking sweat–the final frontier: Well, it’s about time. Swedish scientists have invented a machine that turns sweat into good old water you can drink. The device spins and heats sweaty clothes to remove the moisture, then runs it through a filter that allows only water molecules to pass. While the researchers pointed out that their liquid was cleaner than the local tap water, they also acknowledged that people don’t really sweat all that much.
Video bonus: Get a little taste of Fitwall frenzy. I apologize in advance for the music.
Video bonus bonus: For old time’s sake, take a look at a mash-up of what some people still think was the last big fitness innovation.
More from Smithsonian.com
May 30, 2013
For all the misconceptions–both positive and negative–about what’s now known fondly and acridly as Obamacare, one thing that is clear is its focus on shifting the U.S. health care system from one in which doctors and hospitals are rewarded for ordering tests and procedures to one built more around preventive care and keeping people healthy.
As is often the case, technology is racing ahead of policy, finding ingenious ways to use little sensors or Big Data to devise early warning systems for health trouble. In fact, it’s fomenting medicine that’s not just preventive, it’s predictive.
Follow the behavior trail
One of the more innovative approaches is a mobile app called Ginger.io, from a company of the same name. It’s based on the idea that changes in a person’s behavior–perhaps something as seemingly mundane as a lull in making phone calls–may tip off the start of a spin into bad health or depression.
That may seem a bit of a leap, but research has found that people with chronic medical conditions, such as pain or diabetes or mental illness, tend to withdraw if their health deteriorates. They stop reaching out to friends and family, don’t go out as much, and lose interest in taking care of themselves. Often, that’s when they quit taking their meds.
So the app tracks how frequently someone uses his or her phone, how often they move and if they do go out, where they go. If it notices a change in patterns, particularly too much isolation and too little activity, it sends an alert to a designated person. It might be a doctor, it might be a family member.
Ginger.io has been described as a human “Check Engine” light in that it’s designed to flag potential trouble before a person breaks down. One of the app’s advantages is that it keeps a precise record of what a person has been doing or not doing, rather than depending on the often unreliable or skewed memories of patients.
A number of U.S. hospitals are now testing it with patients who have opted into the alert system, but it’s still not clear how effective it can be. There’s no way to tell, for instance, if a person’s been inactive because he’s depressed or just has a bad cold. Will doctors and nurses end up wasting time and money on waves of false alarms?
There’s also the question of whether patients, even though they’ve chosen to use the alerts, will start to feel they’ve given up too much privacy. For now, though, they seem to like the access the app provides to caregivers. They feel like doctors and nurses are actually keeping an eye on them.
The doctor will text you now
At the same time, patients are more in control of their personal health data than they’ve ever been. Increasingly, it’s in their smartphones, not locked away in a doctor’s office or a lab somewhere. And that, predicts Dr.Eric Topol, is going to forever change the role of doctors. They’ll still advise and treat patients, of course, but less as an authority figure and more as a collaborator, says Topol, the chief academic officer of Scripps Health and author of “The Creative Destruction of Medicine.”
As he told Forbes in an interview earlier this year:
“We are ending the era of medical information asymmetry, with most of the information in the doctor’s domain. The consumer is now center stage–he or she will drive this new medicine with a rebooted model of physician partnership. It is the consumer’s data, the consumer’s smartphone, and the consumer’s choice of who, when and how to share.”
Topol is equally evangelisitic about predictive medicine, although his focus is on early warning systems based on biology rather than behavior. He’s convinced that it won’t be long before scientists will be able to send tiny sensors into our bloodstreams that will be able to detect the first molecular signal of a heart attack or the development of the first cancer cell.
And yes, your smartphone will be the first to know.
Thoroughly modern medicine
Here are other recent health tech innovations:
- Tracking ticking brains: The Defense Department is doing a trial with a company named Cogito Health using software that tries to measure whether a soldier may be developing PTSD by identifying if he or she is withdrawing or becoming more manic.
- Stop making sense: Recently purchased by United Healthcare, a Boston firm called Humedica crunches the Big Data of patients’ electronic records so hospitals can get a much clearer idea of how often different treatments actually help people get better.
- So quit blaming the cat: An app named Asthmapolis uses a sensor attached to an inhaler that tracks where a person is and potentially what triggers are around when they have an asthma attack. And it saves that info on the smartphone.
Video bonus: Dr. Eric Topol went on “The Colbert Report” not long ago and actually managed to get in a few words about the future of medicine. He also examined Stephen Colbert’s inner ear. It’s not pretty.
More from Smithsonian.com
March 5, 2013
It’s amazing how putting a lower case “i” in front of the name of a gadget can make it righteous.
What that means, of course, is that Apple has deemed that particular piece of technology worthy of its attention. And with that comes both market credibility and geeky cool.
So when rumors started swirling a few weeks ago that Apple could unveil an “iWatch” later this year, tech writers around the Web were quick to ponder if 2013 will become “The Year of the Smartwatch.” Maybe. Maybe not. The iGod has not yet spoken on the subject. At least not officially.
The article that stirred the iWatch clamor was a recent piece by Nick Bilton in the New York Times’ Bits blog. It was high on speculation–Apple isn’t talking–and spiced with juicy questions: Will it come with Siri, the voice of the iPhone? What about Apple’s map software? Will an iWatch enable its wearers to track their steps taken? How about their heartbeats?
But the biggest tease was an allusion to glass. Specifically bendable glass. Imagine a watch face that could curve around your wrist. That sounds light, sleek and yes, geekily cool. That sounds so Apple.
The Wall Street Journal followed up, citing a source saying that Apple has been discussing the design of a smartwatch with its Chinese manufacturing partner. And then Bloomberg chimed in, reporting that Apple has a team of at least 100 people cranking away on a “wristwatch-like device.”
It also quoted Bruce Tognazzini, a tech consultant and former Apple employee: “The iWatch will fill a gaping hole in the Apple ecosystem.”
So game over, right? Whenever Apple rolls out its device, it will define what a smartwatch should be, right?
Not so fast. Believe it or not, it’s already a crowded field, with more than half a dozen smartwatches out in the market. Maybe the best known, at least among gadget geeks, is the Pebble, which made a big splash a year ago, even before it existed. Its inventors made a pitch for investors on Kickstarter, hoping to drum up $100,000. Instead they raised $10 million, and a crowd-funding legend was born. The first Pebbles shipped earlier this year, to generally positive reviews.
Sony came out with its own model last year, sometimes to less than enthusiastic reviews. Others in the game include the MetaWatch Strata, the strangely-named I’m Watch, the oddly-named Martian Passport, one called Buddy and another called Cookoo. Later this year, a model called The Pine is expected to hit the market.
But, aside from having names that you’d never imagined calling a wristwatch, what do all these products bring to modern life? Obviously, they tell time, but most also connect wirelessly to your smartphone so you can see who’s calling or texting or emailing or posting on your Facebook page without digging into your pocket for your phone. They can show you weather forecasts, sports scores or news headlines. Some have apps that let you control the music on your phone or track how far you’ve run or cycled.
And keep in mind, this is only the first wave. They probably can’t do enough yet to entice most people to shell out a few hundred bucks–they range from $130 for a Cookoo to more than $400 for an I’m Watch. But as more apps are added, they could be used to make mobile payments, navigate with GPS, take photos and shoot videos. A few already can handle phone calls, albeit clunkily. So, the day is fast coming when you’ll be able to talk into your wristwatch without making people nervous.
Some say we’re on the cusp of a wearable tech boom, and that the smartphone, as something we need to actually carry around, will become passe. Others are more dubious, positing that the smartwatch is just another gadget phase we’re going through.
But there’s that bendable glass…
It’s long been said that if you want to succeed, it helps to be smart. Now that applies to products, too.
- At last, a cure for expiration date anxiety: Researchers at the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands say they’ve developed packaging with sensors that will be able to tell if the food inside is still edible.
- When bottles share: A Florida entrepreneur thinks the time has come for medicine bottles to get smart. His idea is to put QR codes on bottles that once scanned, will play a video on your smartphone telling you all you really need to know about the meds inside.
- Let sleeping babies lie: And for anxious young parents who check every 30 seconds to see if their baby is still breathing, students at Brigham Young University are developing something they call the Owlet Baby Monitor. Using a built-in pulse oximeter, the wireless smart sock can track both a sleeping child’s heart and breathing rates.
- Say goodbye to the “You’ll just feel a little pinch” lie: Scientists at Purdue University have created bandages that could make the needle stick obsolete. Powered by a person’s body heat, the adhesive patches would be able to deliver medication without the need for a shot.
- Which is so much cooler than wearing a smart sock: In Japan, Fujitsu has unveiled its “Next Generation Cane.” Yep, it’s a smart cane and it can monitor a person’s vitals. It also comes with GPS so you can always know where Grandma’s taking a stroll.
Video bonus: Want the lowdown on how the Pebble smartwatch works? The Wall Street Journal’s Walt Mossberg lays it out a video review.
More from Smithsonian.com
January 17, 2013
Utensil history was made last week and I, for one, took pleasure in seeing that we had finally evolved beyond the spork or, as some of you may know it, the foon.
But sadly, the unveiling of the HapiFork at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) was not universally greeted with great jubilation, but rather with a fair amount of ridicule.
Produced by a Hong Kong company called HapiLabs, the HapiFork is curious little thing. It looks like a fork and works like a fork, but it vibrates like a cellphone. And why it buzzes is the reason the media largely responded with one big group eyeroll.
See, the HapiFork is a fork with a simple and noble mission–to get you to stop eating like a pig. It buzzes to remind you to slow down.
It tracks not only the number of bites you’ve taken, but also how much time has passed between them and how long it takes you to finish the meal. The slower you eat, the fewer calories you consume. And because all the data can be stored on your smart phone, you can measure how less a chowhound you’ve become.
But some critics were not enamored of the concept, portraying the HapiFork as the essence of nanny technology, another “smart” gadget enforcer of data-driven moderation. How, the thinking goes, did it come to this, where forks are telling us to shut our pieholes?
The measure of a man
But maybe, given the obesity epidemic in the U.S. and Europe, it’s time to start listening to buzzing silverware. In fact, there are those who believe the current boom in mobile apps and devices that track our health and bad habits could play a big role in helping the U.S. get its outrageous health care costs under control.
A major health trend this year, according to a new report from PricewaterhouseCoopers, will be a shift by employers and insurance companies to encourage employees to be a lot more proactive when it comes to taking care of themselves. That’s in part due to incentives in the Affordable Care Act, but also because today’s technology–whether it’s sensors, WiFi or smart phones–has made it so much easier to track every move we make, every breath we take.
We’ll likely see more companies turn to employee wellness programs focusing on prevention and tapping into all that data that our smart phones and other health gadgets are able to gather about us. Already, start-ups such as the Boston-based Healthrageous are being hired by companies to work closely with their employees with chronic conditions, such as diabetes or hypertension or even sleep disorders. Healthrageous provides both a tracking device–say a blood glucose monitor for diabetics–and a customized plan to help employees reach their personal goals, which could be anything from fitting into pants you last wore 10 years ago to being able to play with your grandkids.
PUSH Wellness, in Chicago, also contracts out an employee wellness program, but with a different spin. It actually pays cash incentives to workers who meet goals that raise their “PUSH” score–a number based on a person’s Body Mass Index (BMI), blood pressure, cholesterol and fitness level. With PUSH, it’s not enough for an employee to exercise; they have to show real measurable results or there’s no pay out.
The big health insurance companies are getting in on the act, too. Last month, Aetna unveiled Passage, a fitness app it developed with Microsoft, that allows people to feel like they’re running or biking in some of the world’s great cities–Rome, New York, or Barcelona, for instance.
Also last month, Cigna announced that it has made available, for free, to the first 20,000 people who download them, four apps bundled together as the “Healthy Living App Pack. One is designed to track your workouts, another to get you to relax, another the help you sleep. The fourth, Fooducate, is a food nutrition app designed to make you health savvy when you’re food shopping.
When sensors speak
Here are five other health devices that made a splash at CES last week:
- Would your wrist lie to you?: Another health wristband is coming on the market soon. Called Fitbit Flex, it will be able to track your daily activity–steps taken, calories burned–and also how you’ve slept, plus wake you up with a little buzz in the morning. For motivation, a display of four LED lights shows how far along you are in meeting that day’s goal. And at $100, it will be less expensive than the competitors already out there, Nike Fuel and Jawbone’s Up.
- Keep running or we’ll play “Gangham Style:” Or you can let little earbuds do the monitoring work. Coming out this spring are iRiver On headphones equipped with PerformTek Precision Biometrics technology that measures a range of body metrics, including heart rate, distance traveled, steps taken, respiration rate, speed, metabolic rate, energy expenditure, calories burned and recovery time.
- It was so much easier when pills looked like the Flintstones: For those dealing with a daily dose of multiple meds, there’s the uBox. The little box reminds people when it’s time to take their pills with a combination of beeps, blinking lights and smart phone reminders. And if you’ve already taken your meds, the box remains locked until it’s time for another set–the better to keep forgetful seniors from double dosing. It even lets other family members know if grandpa’s missed a med.
- Giving new meaning to “Let me hear your body talk”: Then there’s Metria, a small patch a person wears on their chest that measures heartbeat, skin hydration, breathing, steps taken and sleep patterns. (It records the duration and quality of sleep based on how much you’ve tossed and turned.) Each patch gathers information for seven days and can send it to a phone or tablet anywhere in the world. Metria’s designed primarily for elderly people who live alone, but the U.S. Air Force reportedly may use it to monitor pilots.
- Will walk for prizes: And bringing us back full circle to obesity is the ibitz PowerKey, a pedometer for kids. It doesn’t just track their activity, but rewards them with games, apps, shows and prizes for staying on the move. And yes, parents can check in on their kids’ progress on their own smart phones.
Video bonus: See why Stephen Colbert thinks the HapiFork is “unAmerican.”
More from Smithsonian.com
December 7, 2012
Yes, this is the time of year for getting together with family and friends and chowing down like you’re eating for all of them. It’s also a time when, during the height of shopping madness, we get a chance to reflect on just how clever we humans can be.
The truth is, though, not all of us got around to inventing something this year. Let the following list serve as inspiration for 2013.
1) Every move you make, every step you take, I’ll be tracking you: Sometimes you follow your heart, other times you listen to your wrist. So it goes with the Nike+ Fuelband, a slick little bracelet that tracks every step you take during the course of the day. But it doesn’t stop there. It tracks all of your physical activities and lets you know how many calories you’ve burned–whether you’re doing push-ups or lifting a cup of coffee. You can set a daily target and follow your progress and, if you hold up your end of the deal, you’re rewarded with a big flashing “Goal” on your wrist, which is way better than a corsage.
2) Break a lag: For those whose body clock is out of whack because of jet lag or working overnight shifts or just forgetting about the whole sleep thing, consider the Re-Timer. Invented by sleep researchers in Australia, the Re-Timer is a pair of glasses without the glass, but instead has LED lights that emit a soft-green glow on to your eyes. And that light is of a wavelength, according to the scientists, that has the effect of resetting your body clock so that your circadian rhythms get their beat back.
3) Although probably only your mother would agree to watch it: So if we expect bicyclists to stop at red lights, why shouldn’t they be able to look down at their smart phones while they’re waiting just like everyone in the cars around them. Now they can, thanks to Biologic’s Bike Mounts–there’s one for iPhones and one for Android phones. But this isn’t just some little attachment that connects to the handlebars. It pivots so your phone can shoot photos or video of your ride.
4) Why deal with the added stress of watering a plant: It’s safe to say that most people know how to water a plant but, strangely, so many are unable to pull it off on a regular basis. That’s why the self-watering flower pot from Click and Grow is such a godsend. It has sensors, batteries, a pump and a water reservoir that delivers water to the otherwise neglected plant as needed. If it needs a refill or the batteries run out, a light on the pot blinks. Think you can handle that?
5) Look, I’m just a cup but even I wouldn’t eat this: While we’re on the subject of products that remind us of how lame we can be, Hammacher Schlemmer is selling a measuring cup that talks. That’s right, it tells you how much of an ingredient you’ve added because why should you have to look for yourself?
6) Are your toys smarter than a fifth grader?: In today’s gaming world, just how cool could a set of little cubes be? In the case of Sifteo Cubes, very cool, because each cube has it own small LCD screen and a built-in acceleromenter and they interact with you when you shake or flip or tilt them. Or they’ll connect wirelessly to each other, exchanging info, like numbers and colors, so you can play puzzle games or take on number equations. They’re supposed to be for kids, but we know better.
7) But let’s draw the line at handkerchiefs: In most places these days, every day is casual Friday. But every man still has a few occasions when a team jersey just won’t do. And that’s why a business like Tie Society just might make it. Started in Washington, D.C. last year, it’s been described as the Netflix of ties. We’re talking rental ties. It works like this: For a monthly fee, starting at $11, a person can select ties and keep them until he wants to trade them in for a new set.
8) Does a man tweet in the woods?: Just because you’re out in the woods doesn’t mean you need to act crazy and let your gadgets lose power. The Biolite CampStove not only allows you to avoid lugging cannisters for cooking–it burns twigs and pine cones and anything else combustible you find lying around–but it also converts the heat from your fire to electricity that can recharge your stuff.
9) Rock faster, grandpa, I need to shop: Sure, it’s relaxing, but killing time in a rocking chair can seem oh-so-unproductive. No more. Zurich-based Micasa Laboratories has come up with a way for grandpa to contribute to household peace by doing his part to keep the old iPad charged. The iRock looks like a rocking chair and works like a rocking chair, but it’s also a charging station. The back-and-forth motion actually creates enough power to juice up an iPad. Okay, so it costs $1,300, but we’re talking Christmas miracle here.
10) Video bonus: Ready for liftoff? Maybe this is the year you’ll finally get that jet pack you’ve been waiting for your whole life. Neiman Marcus can get you the the Jetlev R200 for under $100,000. Such a deal.