The business of 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.

The closing session for the first day at the Quantified Self conference offers some glipses of the future of the movement. Paul Tarini of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has been instrumental in sponsoring some of QS’s early work (and the presence of several folks, myself included, ath the conference – thanks, Paul!) He introduces a new feature on Quantified Self’s website, a directory of products and services called The Complete QS Guide to Self Tracking, which features 400 tools at present.

One of the sexiest new tools is the Basis pulsetracer wristwatch, presented by Nadeem Kassam. He left the entertainment industry for health care and has been fascinated by the challenge of producing devices that are easy for many people to wear and enjoy, rather than existing for the obsessive folks who come to conferences like this one. The Basis device uses an optical blood flow sensor to measure bloodflow speed, which it can interpolate into a measure of hert rate. By combining this information with data from an accelerometer, galvanic response and temperature sensors, the “watch” can provide a very broad range of data on caloric burn, activity and sleep status.

The device isn’t the thing, Kassam tells us – it’s the way we present data to users. We need data that’s deep enough to be insightful, but simple and engaging. We need to be able to share it with other companies and systems. And we need to make it easy for users to wear, sync, learn and share, or we won’t find a way to extend personal tracking beyod the early adopter market.

The rest of the closing session focuses on precisely this challenge: turning personal tracking into a consumer product. Ben Rubin of Zeo (a sleep-tracking sensor), Jason Jacobs of Fitnesskeeper, and Brian Krejcarek of GreenGoose are wrestling with similar challenges. They’re building products based on their personal passions, but trying to sell to a broad audience. In the process, they’re learning a great deal about what might work – and not work – in bringing QS ideas to a wider audience.

Ben tells us that, while there are a few truly dedicated users who’ve used Zeo (a sensor that tracks sleep behavior) virtually every night since it’s been released, most users buy the product, use it intently for 3-4 weeks, and then fall off. What’s interesting is that they don’t stop using it entirely – the usage goes down, but six months after purchase, 70% were using it at least once a week. The hope is that by making a product convenient and easy to use, they’ll pick it up any time they have a sleep issue.

Jason, whose company makes software to track physical activity, has discovered that users who share their data on Facebook are more likely to stay engaged. So are users who integrate data from other tracking devices with data from their running or biking. And users who stop using the tools are often able to be lured back in by email prompts, that ask whether a user is “taking a break” and suggesting that they get back to tracking by setting and reaching a goal.

Brian, whose company manufactures inexpensive and small sensors that can record movement on objects like toothbrushes, pill bottles or water pipes, urges the audience to consider passive sensors rather than tools that require active data collection. The problem with a sensor you choose to use, he tells us, is that you end up with zeros for the days you didn’t participate. By making sensors pervasive, you can choose to ignore the data they transmit, but it’s there if and when you want it.

Ben – whose product is a sensor you need to choose to wear – allows that he’s a fan of ubiquitous, passive sensors. In the long term, we’ll have sensors in our beds, cars and phones… but it’s going to take a while. In the meantime, it makes sense to target sensors at problems people are having, like the need to get better sleep. And until there’s a richer ecosystem around these tools, a manufacturer may need to be highly vertically integrated. Zeo produces the physical sensor, the tools for visualizing sleep data, and the community that allows you to compare your sleep to that of others. It’s possible that, going forward, we’ll have a whole ecosystem of providers, but in the meantime, it makes sense to develop everything a user needs.

Gary Wolf, who’s moderating the session, asks all participants “What’s missing in the ecosystem?”

Ben suggests that stress is a market where there aren’t many good tools to analyze and understand a problem many individuals suffer from. In a more general sense, mass consumer awareness is still missing from the market as a whole. Brian suggests that personal tracking isn’t much fun – what’s missing is games that bring happiness to the process. Jason doesn’t believe anything in particular is missing from a QS ecosystem – instead, we just need more time to collect data and develop our tools.

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