An increasing number of people are using connected personal objects to collect information about themselves in order to positively impact their lives. What has been labeled as “the quantified-self movement” relies on the notion that we can improve the quality of our daily lives by tracking metrics about ourselves. Wearable products such as the Fitbit Tracker, the UP wristband or Nike’s FuelBand are already being used to collect data and provide analysis of everyday activities that can help individuals live healthier and more active lives.
This array of devices allows users to self-track different aspects of their day-to-day activities, from sleep patterns to weight variations and fitness routines. However, most users are currently using different devices or mobile apps to track each metric separately, on separate dashboards, making it almost impossible to find correlations between the different sources of data collection. Knowing how many hours of sleep someone is getting becomes much more relevant if it can be tracked alongside food consumption and weight loss or gain.
Once we start imagining how these various connected objects will monitor not only the conditions of their surroundings but also communicate with other objects within their network and act based on their collective knowledge, we can start to see how a shared database of information can be even more beneficial to us. For example, using Facebook’s Social Graph as an inspiration, the creators of the RunKeeper app created the Health Graph, which allows third parties to develop applications or devices that can tap into a large quantity of correlated health data. With the release of a Health Graph API, RunKeeper opened up the concept of a network of data that can identify correlations within a user’s health and fitness history.
Useful services such as TicTrac also allow users to pull self-tracking data from a whole range of sources in order to visualize and compare everything all in one place. Users can gather pretty much any type of data they wish to monitor, while continuing to use the apps and devices that they have already grown accustomed to wear or keep around themselves.
Making the Invisible Visible
Most of the existing connected objects we know are custom fit to do a specific thing and they are still easily recognizable as digital devices. Their buttons and displays betray their heritage and they also tend to be dependent on smartphones, PCs and chargers. We can expect the next generation of connected objects to be much more discreet and far more integrated into our environment.
A perfect example of an indiscernible connected object that could inaugurate a new post-smartphone era is Google Glass, the wearable computer that is expected to launch later this year. The huge potential offered by this new type of self-tracking device shows us how we have merely scratched the surface of what intelligent objects can do for us.
As technology continues to advance, everyday objects unrecognizable as hi-tech gadgets will be equipped with sensors and Internet connectivity. In fact, we could basically take any personal object—a ring, a hairbrush, a razor, a coffee mug, a banana—embed it with sensors, record the resulting information and connect it to the Internet to allow for data analysis. The idea is to use the information to reveal a behavior, a pattern or a trend that would otherwise go undetected over a period of time. In other words, make the invisible visible.
Sensors Are Getting Smarter
An increasing number of new technologies can be used to develop sensor-based connected objects that will open up new possibilities in the field of medical follow up. Many researchers are currently devoting great efforts to create systems of portable wireless medical sensors that patients will be able to operate by themselves when they return home after a visit to the hospital. From a mirror that can detect a person’s heart rate to a telephone booth-sized “health capsule” that could establish a diagnosis and obtain a prescription from a doctor in a distant hospital, the possibilities offered by smart personal objects are potentially infinite.
There are already simple sensors that can monitor our pulse and blood pressure and allow us to check the measurements ourselves and have the data sent to our doctor via mobile phone. More sophisticated devices that have not yet been embedded into connected personal objects can, for instance, measure the electrical conductance of the human skin and use the collected data to monitor mental stress and possibly to predict dangerous events, such as seizures or heart attacks.
Digestible sensors in the form of pills can monitor patients’ adherence to medication. Sensor-enabled pills can keep track of medication taken throughout the day and share the collected information with family members and doctors. They can also be used to help avoid lethal drug and allergy combinations. Not only will these connected sensors make patients feel safer, it will also allow them to keep their doctors constantly update on their condition.
Applying the concepts of the “quantified self” to the medical industry will allow doctors to focus more on the prevention aspect of health assistance rather than strictly treating illnesses. Existing devices such as the iBGStar, a blood glucose meter that connects to a smartphone, already allows diabetics to access valuable information in real time and share it with their doctor to help them manage their condition. This smart glucometer acts as an entry point into a comprehensive diabetes management system called STARsystem™ that enables patients to take control of their blood glucose. Nurun collaborated with Sanofi Canada to develop the program that gives diabetics the ability to track their own progress. According to Grégoire Baret, executive vice president of Nurun Montreal, “[...] Thanks to connected objects, Sanofi can offer its clients more than a product but also a service through which consumers find a personal coaching solution that empowers them to self-manage their diabetes.”
These examples highlight how connecting objects with bodies can alter the relationship between product and consumer. However, we must also take into account the challenges and risks of such a revolution. The sensible nature of medical information will force researchers to insure that data protection remains a key concern in the development of reliable and secure models of interacting systems. It’s obvious that users will want to be fully aware of who has access to their private information while making sure that the persons who need to see it can easily and seamlessly access it. On the negative side, we can expect that hackers will try to access the personal health information of famous people and make it public. We can also imagine that insurance companies could use this data to raise premium rates of clients who are not taking their prescribed medication or those who are lagging in their physical training program.
The Future Is About Openness
It’s certainly too early to predict how people will actually use this torrent of documented personal information. As the data becomes more actionable and the devices less visible, we can expect that these connected devices will become more efficient at altering the behaviors that we wish to change. Personal connected objects can help us live smarter, healthier and perhaps even happier lives. However, to be truly efficient, connected things must work together.
As more people get into the habit of constantly measuring and documenting their lives through connected objects, we will witness a shift from passive tracking to active behavior change. The more data we can feed into devices that can proactively analyze it and correlate it to other sources of data, the more control we can gain over our health and lifestyle.
Currently there is no broadly used, open standard for how connected objects share information and communicate with one another. However, we can already see signs of a new trend moving away from the closed, proprietary systems of the first generation of connected objects. It’s obvious that connected products and services that offer APIs and encourage third parties to develop integrated applications will enjoy broader adoption than those that are closed. As SMS became the standard protocol of instant messaging between smartphones, we can expect a similar migration towards interoperability that will allow all sorts of connected devices to talk to each other and exchange information.
From the fitness industry to the medical world, the trend towards more connected objects will continue to grow and generate huge amounts of data that will need to be managed, analyzed and protected. A company like Telus has already positioned itself in this area with its TELUS health space service powered by Microsoft HealthVault. The service provides a series of connected apps and devices that can help users gather, store, manage, and share their health information with people they trust.
In the coming years, these personal data ecosystems will be a valuable source of information for advertisers who wish to bring targeted offers to their customers. All this goes to show that we are merely scratching the surface of the Internet of Things.