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New sensors and the Quantified Self

This post is part of my liveblogged account of a conference. Two disclaimers: Liveblogging is hard, and I often get things wrong. If I did, please feel free to correct me via email or in the comments and I’ll make changes when appropriate. Second, the opinions expressed in these sorts of posts are those of the speakers, rather than mine.

Day two of the Quantified Self conference begins with a talk by Eric Boyd on New Sensors and the future of Self Tracking. Eric describes himself as “mostly a hacker”, someone who explores new technology and the capabilities they can provide us with.

He’s produced two very cool projects:

– Heart Spark, a pendant that flashes when your heart beats. This is less a quantified self project than a social communication one – what do we learn when we watch someone else’s heart rate increase as you’re talking.
– North Paw, a wearable compass gives you a sense of north by tingling on your ankle. This helps give you a perpetual sense of direction. Over time, he tells us, you lose the sense of vibration – you simply have a new sense.

Boyd’s talk is an overview of different sensor systems and what they might mean for personal tracking. He notes that not only have sensors gotten smaller and cheaper, but wireless and battery technologies have improved radically. As a result, it’s possible for companies like Green Goose to provide sensors in stickers. They’ve got accelerometers, low-power wifi and high density LiPo batteries that last three years. This means you can put a sticker on a pill bottle and tell whether you’ve taken your medicine, or put sensors on an asthma inhaler to measure where outbreaks are taking place, as Asthmapolis uses to map areas in a community where asthma attacks are common. As we think through the potential of these new sensors, there are lots of questions about open standards, and ensuring that this space remains interoperable.

But that’s not the focus of this talk – instead, it’s a tour of new sensors and capabilities.

Boyd begins with EMG – electromyography – the use of small skin-based electrodes to detect muscle activation. When a muscle contracts, it creates a small electric field. Neurosky, a brainwave monitoring headset, uses this sensor type. Amy Drill gave a talk at Quantified Self New York that showed off a pair of shorts with electrodes in it used to track and optimize the performance of olympic calibre athletes. While the system is currently expensive, they could easily come down in price, and would allow serious athletes and coaches to study the movement of individual muscle groups during activity.

Galvanic skin response sensors detect skin resistance, how much electricity flows across a gap on skin. Basically, this measures sweat levels. On a gross level, this is a way of sensing physical exertion. At lower levels, it can detect slight nervousness, agitation, and excitement. Paired with accelerometers and heart monitors, it might be possible to match mood information to physical activity.

Boyd is interested in glucometers, in part because he’s trying to debug a personal problem with low energy levels in the afternoon. Glucometers are pretty miserable at present, he notes – you spend $1 per test for a sensor that requires a drop of blood. What we hope for is a continuous monitor, but even bloodstream monitors at present need to be replaced every couple of days. The hope is that microneedles – patches of tiny needles with the texture of velcro – might be a solution for delivering vaccines through a skin patch, and eventually for continuous blood or fluid monitoring. Exciting, but these technologies are still in the lab.

Cameras are getting smaller and cheaper, and it’s worth asking whether a picture, traditionally worth a thousand words, could also be worth a thousand data points. Looxcie is a wearable camera that continually records. Press a button and the camera will store the previous 30 seconds. (I’ve wanted this functionality for years, and am thrilled someone’s actually built it.) Boyd talks about his dream camera-based tool, one that looks at faces of people who should be familiar to you and prompts you with their identity, perhaps via earbud. That’s a way off, but there are tools like Foodsnap that try to estimate your caloric load by allowing you to upload photos of your food. It’s hard to know how accurate these systems are – some are using Mechanical Turk to help with estimation. But even if you don’t look at the photos of food you’re eating, the act of photographing has a tendency to shape your diet.

Microphones are a sensor we tend to forget about. They’re cheap – often $2 – and can be used in interesting ways. One hacker put an air pillow in his bed with a microphone in it, and used the sound of airflow to measure his sleep movement and breathing. He got a huge amount of interesting data about sleep cycle from a sensor that was incredibly cheap. Boyd wonders what we might do with new sensors that detect ultrasonics, frequencies that humans can’t hear, but are used by bats and other animals. And he points to the Lena baby monitor, a $700 tool that listens to your child’s attempts at speech and tells you where your child is in the cycle of language development.

We’re seeing more sensors in our physical environment – the quantified world. Electricity monitors can actually tell us a lot about our personal behavior. Midnight bathroom breaks are visible as power fluctuations, as are the beginning and end of your time in bed. Automobiles are filled with an array of sensors, and using products like the Carchip Pro, which downloads automotive sensor data via the ODB2 port , you can access everything your car knows about itself, like tire pressure, speed, and engine RPM. Perhaps you could use this information as a way of detecting stress, if fast acceleration is a proxy for that behavior.

We’re seeing exciting challenges put on the table, like the Tricorder X Prize, recently launched with Qualcomm. It’s a $10m prize for a handheld device with multiple diagnostic capabilities. Boyd tells us that it’s really unlikely to be a separate, handheld unit like a Tricoder – it’s likely to be something strapped to the body. But we’re very early on in the idea, and it’s unclear what strategies might win out. The exciting nature of this moment in time is that there are lots of opportunities, both to play with sensors and to push the DIY aspect of the quantified self movement.

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  1. Pingback: Où va la Quantification de Soi? (Internet Actu) | Navicorp

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