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Wearable snake oil: The search for automatic calorie-intake tracking in fit-tech wristbands

Jon Phillips | March 25, 2014
It's the 'holy grail' of activity-tracking wristbands, but critics say no defensible technology allows activity-tracking wristbands to automatically tell us how many calories are in the food we eat.

AIRO, the original calorie-intake tracking hope

Within the context of automatic calorie-intake tracking, Airo Health, a small outfit based in Waterloo, Ontario, is the pioneer. That's not necessarily a laudable distinction, but at least the company is contrite, and announced a refund of crowd-funded money after it determined its AIRO wristband lacks the accuracy to deliver consistent results.

It's difficult to get a bead on exactly how the AIRO wristband works, and this makes cross-checking its scientific validity all the more difficult. I spoke with the company's original CEO and co-founder, Abhilash Jayakumar, but he wouldn't shed any light on the technology beyond pointing me to public statements he made when he was a member of the Airo team. But Jayakumar did explain why he left Airo Health: "The high-level reason is that I had a fundamentally different vision for the company than my co-founders, who were united on theirs," he said.

I also interviewed Airo Health's current CEO, Naman Kumar, another one of the company's original co-founders. Try as I might, I couldn't get Kumar to explain in detail how the AIRO wristband tracks calories with a spectroscopic sensor, but he did say the sensor is more of a "nutrition sensor" than a "calorie sensor."

Based on Kumar's brief overview and already published information about AIRO, it seems the wristband uses a miniaturized spectroscopic sensor similar to the technology once under development by C8 MediSensors, a now-defunct company that was working on non-invasive blood glucose monitoring for diabetics (the company's Director of Optics and System Engineering, Ueyn Block, now works for Apple).

In a nutshell, Airo's system is similar to a teeny-tiny flashlight and camera: An LED array shines different wavelengths of light through the skin, while a highly sensitive photo detector determines which wavelengths have been absorbed, and which have been reflected. The system detects the optical footprints of what Airo Health describes as metabolites, and from these, the AIRO algorithm can estimate calorie intake.

IMAGE: AIRO HEALTH. Another view of AIRO, the great calorie-tracking hope that's currently on hold. Notice the spectroscopic sensors.

Kumar wouldn't call AIRO a system that primarily senses blood glucose levels. He would only tell me that "glucose-sensing is one way to derive calories. It's one of the ideas that has emerged from theoretical speculations, but it doesn't need to be that." He did say, however, that the AIRO system has greater success in tracking carbohydrates than other types of food: "Mostly stuff that is rich in carbohydrates--rice, bread, that kind of stuff. But proteins and fats need more time and optimization," he said.


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