Life’s For Living, Not Measuring

David_7Wearables are all over CES this week. It seems that no-one is anyone in the tech world any more unless you can offer consumers a connected wristband, headband, headphones or other body accessory to monitor their every movement, whether they’re walking, running, cycling, or just turning over in their sleep.

It seems hard to believe that just 12 months ago, all the talk coming out of CES was about tablets. It’s not so much that tablets are last year’s thing, more that they are now so well established as a must-have item that the gadget-makers are looking for the next big thing, and wearable tech is deemed to be it.

The Quantified Self
This is not new, of course. I don’t know if Nike started the ‘Quantified Self’ trend with its Fuelband offering a couple of years ago, but it certainly did most to bring the activity tracking sector to the public’s attention. (By the way, if you take a photo of yourself using a fitness app, is that a Quantified Selfie?) The analyst, IHS, predicts that global installations of mobile apps used for sports and fitness activities will rise to 248m units in 2017, up from 156m in 2012. Given the current craze for them, even that figure looks on the low side to me.

In some respects, I can see the appeal. I’ve made a point this year of getting on my bike, literally, to cycle into the office and back once a week, and have downloaded a couple of apps – Strava and MapMyRide – to help me log the miles I’m clocking up. The jury is still out on which is the best, but the mash-up between activity tracking and social media is very appealing. Not only can I see how far I’ve ridden this year, I can see what my friends are up to as well, and this is proving a great motivation to cycle in, even when the rain is lashing down, and it would be much easier and more comfortable to take the train.

Next week, as part of our fitness-themed week, we’ll have a review of the Strava app written by guest reviewer Andrew Browning, the UK’s No.1 IronMan triathlete in his age group, and in it, he says the best thing about the app is the way in which it enables you to train with a friend or friends, and motivate each other, even if you’re not physically out together.

Life apps
But I draw a distinction between fitness apps and what might be called ‘life apps’ of which the Sony Lifelog, announced at CES, is probably the first of many. Lifelog takes the form of an app of that name, and a device called the Core, which can be worn in a variety of ways, perhaps most easily by inserting it into a wristband. The device then records your every move – literally – and how you made it – on foot, by bike, or car – as well as other activities carried out on your smartphone, such as receiving an email, talking to friends, watching a video, sending a text, or cooking a meal. Possibly, the thing doesn’t ship for a few months so we’ll have to wait for the fine detail.

This, I suggest, may be taking things a bit far. I’m not saying there’s no place for such an app. A few years ago, around 10 in fact, I was lucky enough to visit Microsoft’s research labs in Cambridge. If anyone thinks of the firm as it is commonly perceived, as a me-too company short on innovation, you should try and get an invite.

I saw lots of cool stuff and lots of big foreheads, but the most striking thing I saw was what Microsoft was then calling the Lifecam. Having just Googled it, it seems it’s now a common or garden webcam, but back then, it was something completely different. It was a tiny camera, worn around the neck like a pendant, which reacted to changes in light, sound, heat, almost anything really, by taking a photograph. Over the course of the day, it would take around 2,000 still images. The researcher who was working on it talked about it as a black box for your life. If you had an accident, it could replay the moments leading up to it to see who was at fault (providing it survived the accident of course). One mooted application was to give it to people with brain damage so that at the end of each day, they could live it out as an action replay in the hope that it might help with memory recall.

For this type of scenario, the black box for your life has obvious appeal. But for everyday Joes going about their daily life? Does anyone really want an app that tracks your every move? Apart from the obvious privacy implications, I question how many people will be willing to sign up for such an audit trail of their life. And for those that do, I offer one piece of advice – however great the desire to measure every aspect of your life, don’t forget to live it.