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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.

As for what compelled Airo Health to suspend its crowd-funded pre-order campaign, Kumar says his team hit two road blocks: It couldn't produce reliable, scalable results beyond the lab environment, and it still has work ahead in making sure the wristband sensors always make reliable contact with the skin.

"We hadn't done enough testing to be able to say that, 'Yeah, not only we in our lab can use it, but you as an outside party, a third-party consumer can use it too,'" Kumar said. "We need to make sure that it works on different kinds of people. You and I are different. There are differences in how your body processes food, in how your body changes every time you eat something."

Kumar told me that AIRO's "expected entry to market" is mid-2015. But Ries Robinson--whose current company, Medici Technologies, develops predictive algorithms for the fit-tech industry and other sectors--said that AIRO, as it's been described by company founders, is beyond the scope of feasibility, just like GoBe.

Robinson's takeaway is that AIRO is focused on blood glucose, just like the GoBe system, and this is already an invalid calorie-tracking model, as it doesn't account for dietary proteins and fats. But even more damaging, if we assume AIRO is "just" a blood-glucose sensor, it still wouldn't have enough science behind it to produce reliable results, he says.

"Is it plausible by using one or two light emitting diodes--which looks to be the case with AIRO--could you measure glucose in the tissue with that type of optical platform? The answer is no," says Robinson.

"We probably raised and spent $70 million trying to measure glucose non-invasively in the tissue," Robinson said of his own experience in the field. "We had two Ph.Ds in tissue optics, and a group of individuals who were extremely good at quantitating spectroscopy, and I think we came close to realizing a device, but the hardware to do that is very sophisticated. It still has a price point even today of $5,000. There's no way you're doing it with two LEDs and a wristwatch."

The case for doing nothing

Consumer tolerance for inaccuracy is already pretty high in the activity-tracking wearable space. The estimated 50 percent of users who actually stick with their wristbands seem comfortable with the fact that basic accelerometer-based reports are inconsistent from platform to platform--that if you wear three different activity-trackers on your arm, each will report different step counts and calorie-burn numbers.

What's more important to consumers, it seems, is that calorie burn reports prove accurate within the context of their own closed platforms. And to this point, the wristband manufacturers typically publish some type of claim regarding the accuracy of their step counts and calorie-burn algorithms. Here's one from Fitbit. And here's one from Basis Science.


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