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 … Next Page »
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