If you’re willing to to walk around all day wearing sensors that record your activity and compile the data into fancy reports and graphs, you must be either a pretty big geek, or a fanatical athlete training for an ultramarathon-style event, or both.
At least, that’s been the conventional wisdom. And there’s some truth in this point of view. Most of the personal fitness monitoring devices on the market today, like the Fitbit Ultra and the Nike+ Fuel Band, are too complicated, too expensive, or too specialized to appeal to the average consumer.
So you run into the usual irony: the early adopters of these gadgets—mostly active young urbanites or adherents of the quantified self movement—are the very people who need them the least, since they’re already likely to be vegan-locavore types who run, cycle, and do yoga every day.
But now a Silicon Valley startup called Lark is working to change the image of the personal fitness device—and make it into something that soccer moms in Sacramento and plumbers in Poughkeepsie can imagine using.
At the moment, Lark is known mainly for its sleep coaching technology, which pairs a wireless wristband with a customized iPhone app that records the wearer’s dozing patterns and offers tips for better sleep. In a huge coup for the startup, the Lark Pro system was selected by Apple in 2011 for distribution in Apple Stores worldwide. It’s been a big hit with insomniacs; it even got endorsed as an official product of the National Sleep Foundation.
But this holiday season, Lark will introduce a second and far more ambitious product designed to help wearers eat better, become more active, and control stress levels (while sleeping better too).
It’s called Larklife. And while it may look like yet another electronic wristband, it’s actually something much more interesting: the first in a new wave of hybrid wearable/mobile/cloud technologies that could help average consumers take better control of their own health and well-being.
“When we found out [with Lark Pro] that we had stumbled upon some really intuitive ways to change behavior and help people sleep better, we looked around and thought about the other big problems that people had that we could help with,” says Julia Hu, Lark’s founder and CEO. “We asked tons of people what they would like, and what they told us was, ‘I want to look great, feel great, and be less stressed and more productive.’ So we took the behavior change method of helping people sleep better and applied it to the rest of your day.”
Lark announced the $149 Larklife in early October, and Hu says it will go on sale this holiday season. This week, I was the first journalist to get a close look at the device, during a visit to Lark’s office in Mountain View, CA.
It’s a stylish, bright-blue rubber wristband, reminiscent of the “Livestrong” bracelets from Lance Armstrong’s pre-doping-scandal days, but thicker. The snap-in core contains batteries, a three-axis accelerometer, and a simple row of LED lights; at night, you remove the core from the blue band and slip into a softer cloth band that’s meant to feel more pajama-like.
The whole setup was designed by Ammunition Group, the San Francisco product design firm currently winning buzz for creating the “Beats by Dr. Dre” audiophile headphones.
There’s a single button on the side of the band, which you can touch to log events like eating a meal or a snack, or to sync the device’s data to your smartphone over BTLE—a new low-power form of the Bluetooth wireless communications protocol. The motion sensors inside measure how much exercise you’re getting as you move through your day and how much you’re tossing and turning in bed at night. When you do something virtuous like eat vegetables or go for a run, the LEDs on the band reward you with a miniature light show.
But the real smarts of the Larklife system aren’t in the band at all—they’re in the associated iPhone app and the cloud-based machine learning software that powers it. Over time, the app gets to know you and your patterns, and learns when to interrupt with cheery messages and gentle suggestions—along the lines of “You haven’t been active for a while. Walk around a bit to engage your muscles and get your blood flowing again.”
It’s the same idea behind the Lark Pro sleep monitoring system, just on a larger canvas—all reflecting Lark’s unifying idea that sensors, mobile devices, and cloud services can work together to create a new kind of experience for consumers. Hu calls the Larklife app “a friendly real-time coach in your pocket” that uses emotional rewards, rather than dry clinical reports and graphs, to help users form healthier habits.
Both products have their genesis in Hu’s studies at Stanford, where she was a master’s student at the Institute of Design (better known as the “d.school”) and picked up the principles of “persuasive design” from behavior-change expert BJ Fogg.
Hu’s version of Fogg’s philosophy goes like this: Everyone begins the day with a finite fund of willpower, defined as the ability to make decisions, stay on task, and resist impulses such as the urge to check Twitter or scarf another Oreo. As you make one decision after another, your willpower fund is gradually depleted. Impulses that crop up after the fund is empty are almost literally irresistible.
But there is one way to override an impulse even after your willpower reserves are gone, and that’s through the power of habit—things you do automatically because you’ve always done them. “You would never say ‘I’m really tired, I think I’ll skip brushing my teeth tonight,’ because that’s a habit,” Hu explains.
So controlling unhealthy impulses boils down to forming countervailing habits. And in Hu’s view, “Building the right habits is all about baby steps. So every part of our product is about building great habits and coaching you on how to do it in the easiest way possible.”
Say the Larklife wristband detects that you’ve walked 1,000 steps since getting up this morning. The LEDs light up, a push notification pops up on your phone, and a gold star appears on the app’s home screen. It may sound trivial, but “In the moment, that little reward is important because it propels your momentum forward,” Hu says.
An expensive gadget like a sports watch or a digital pedometer might be useful to a hyper-athlete who’s already motivated to exercise, but the average person just needs help getting into a habit, she says. “The way we do it is through baby steps, positive reinforcement, and keeping people on their momentum.”
While the flashing LEDs on the wristband act as one sort of reward, the more substantive stuff shows up on the iPhone screen, which essentially acts as the wristband’s remote display. (The same thing is happening in other areas such as home automation—witness the Nest smart thermostat, which comes with an iOS app that lets users adjust the temperature of their home remotely and see graphs of energy savings.)
In Lark’s case, the marriage between wearable device and smartphone is only possible thanks to the emergence of BTLE, which stands for Bluetooth Low Energy. A feature of the latest version of the Bluetooth standard, it allows devices to stay in touch wirelessly while consuming a tiny fraction of the power needed by traditional Bluetooth gadgets.
This helps Lark—which has raised about $4.9 million in venture backing from Asset Management Company and CrunchFund—get around the age-old sync problem, the scourge of every mobile gadget since the Palm Pilot. With the Nike+ Fuel Band, and even with the Lark Pro, owners must sync data to their phones manually. Most people go a couple of days between syncs, Hu says, which means the information in the app is always a little bit out of date.
“Behavior change doesn’t happen in the past, it happens in the present,” Hu says. “BTLE allows for constant connectivity, which allows for much more real-time feedback.”
It also allows the company to push software updates to the wristband’s sensor core automatically. “The beauty of the mobile-app and hardware-device combination is that it can continually evolve as a product, so you can improve on the experience,” Hu says.
But if the only sensor inside the Larklife wristband is the accelerometer, where does food come into the picture? As it turns out, reinforcing healthy eating habits is a little trickier than encouraging people to be more physically active. Users have the option of logging their meals manually inside the app, but the app isn’t meant to act as a calorie counter. Instead, wearers of the wristband are encouraged to tap the side button whenever they have a healthy meal or snack.
That simple act gets recorded and duly reinforced. “Just knowing the times of day when you eat and the number of times each day that you eat allows us to do a lot of coaching around better diet habits,” Hu says.
The company takes the positive-reinforcement model to an extreme, trusting that good behavior—if rewarded often enough—will crowd out bad behavior. “A lot of the time what causes people stop using diet-tracking systems is the guilt—‘Oh, I have to log the cheesecake,’” Hu says. “What we try to do is motivate you to eat more healthy things, thereby squeezing out the unhealthy things.”
So far, Lark has tested Larklife only on its own employees and a small group of beta users, so the company doesn’t have much data on whether Hu’s behavior-change philosophy really helps to improve nutrition, promote fitness, and reduce stress. But the same principles are at work in the Lark Pro sleep coaching system, which has tens of thousands of users and was developed in cooperation with experts such as Cheri Mah, a Stanford sleep researcher who often advises NBA, NFL, and NHL athletes on improving performance through sleep.
And when it comes to snoozing, the company has loads of positive data. An analysis of its sleep database (which Hu says is the world’s largest) showed that 73 percent of insomniacs got more sleep after using Lark Pro for a month.
“The people who stand behind us are the world’s top experts in these fields, and they have dedicated their live to figuring out how you apply these scientific methodologies to improving people’s lives,” Hu says. “Our job has been to translate that into a user experience that is simple, joyful, and meaningful.”
Whether consumers will agree—and, crucially, whether Apple Stores will stock the Larklife alongside the Lark Pro—are unanswered questions. But $149 doesn’t seem like a lot to pay for some friendly help losing weight, getting fit, and sleeping better, while at the same time making a fashion statement.
And ultimately, Hu says she sees Lark not has a hardware maker but as a “lifestyle” company, helping people to improve their health and performance through a variety of cloud and mobile services—whether or not Lark is the company selling them the associated hardware. “We are going to put this out there and see how people really use it, and where they need more help, and we’re going to continually innovate to do that.”
Here’s a short video from Lark about the Larklife system.