“Nosce te ipsum.” (Know thyself.)
The age of cyborgs is arriving, but quietly and without the violence and invasiveness of the Terminator or The Borg. Certainly there are surgically implanted devices under development for everything from the automatic administration of drugs such as insulin to artificial organs and bionic body parts. What’s happening more subtly but in many ways just as powerfully is with instruments that are wrapped around our wrists and apps that connect to our physical activities. Theses devices and apps are not just monitoring our activities, they’re turning our bodies into data producing devices that can be monitored and managed. The following are three such wrist-worn sensors.
The Nike+FuelBand fitness tracker wrist band uses a formula invented by Nike to calculate activity levels based on gender and weight by tracking yours steps, time taken engaged in activities, fuel, and calories burned. The data is wirelessly transmitted to your web based account and/or an app on your smart phone.
The Jawbone UP band measures food intake, sleep, mood, steps taken, and calories burned. It’s smart feedback includes tracking your daily activities and rhythms in order to tell you when it would be most beneficial to sleep, to wake up, eat and exercise. It’s connected to an extensive food database so that food items you eat can be entered by name, by photo, or by scanning a bar code with your phone’s camera. Unlike the Nike+FuelBand, it is not wireless and thus it must be synced by plugging it into an Apple iOS or Android phone or tablet.
The Fitbit Flex is similar to the Jawbone UP in that it tracks your eating, sleeping and physical activities. Sleeping and food cycles must be logged online. However, it is wireless and beams the data to your smart phone or tablet, and you can connect with friends who also use the Fitbit to share data about your routines. In a sense it turns the body into social media device.
There are also a slew of smart apps coming out for measuring and data basing the body. Cardiio measures heart rate, Ginger.io tracks activity and performs behavior analytics, inFlow and Mood Panda track and measure moods and emotional health. Stress Check measures stress levels via heart rate.
These devices and apps are rudimentary compared to what’s coming in the next five years. As chips and circuits get smaller there will be stick-on sensors the size of a small adhesive bandage. High end clothes will have built-in sensors in the synthetic fabric that will wireless beam data to the cloud. Further, these smart fabrics will generate electrostatic electricity to keep the sensors and our devices charged. The wrist bands and Google Glass we have now will seem clunky and cumbersome compared to the ubiquitous, invisible and unobtrusive sensors coming soon.
This is the age of big data, and even things that seem messy and unmathematical like biology and our bodies are a part of that. Figure out how to measure and quantify, and you’ve got data to sync to the cloud. Our bodies are biological machines with rhythms, functions and mechanics, and by interfacing them with these sensors we can be cyborgs without a single surgical implant, by plugging in all that data to our other devices. The body becomes another device like our smart phone and tablet that gets synced with all our other devices and with the big data cloud. What’s extremely powerful about this notion is an explosion of self knowledge that can lead to healthier lifestyle choices. When we eat a hamburger and drink a cola we don’t think about or see data visualization about the growth hormones and saturated fats in the beef, or the high fructose corn syrup in the soft drink. But if our body is a device synced to the cloud, we can. It’s as powerful as the real time gas mileage visualizer on the screens in many hybrid cars. When drivers see the real time result of their behavior on the gas mileage of their car, they tend to change their behavior. Game play results, as many drivers play at how they can get the best gas mileage. It can work the same way with our personal health, particularly if linked to social media so you can share your healthy choices with your friends and family, all through measuring, calculating and visualizing data.
Physicist Max Tegmark says, “Our reality isn’t just described by mathematics–it is mathematics, in a very specific sense.” What will designers do with that reality? To keep pace with innovation the UX designers of today need to be fluent in big data and ubiquitous computing. That doesn’t mean that they have to be mathematicians, but it does mean that design thinking must embrace a reality that IS mathematics, a reality where the human body can be another the ultimate device synced to the cloud.