Better living through data: CES was all about apps that quantify who we are

Participants wander about 2015 CES on Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2015, at the Las Vegas Convention Center.
Photo: L.E. Baskow

You awake so gently, you almost don’t notice the bedside Aura device, glowing blue and nudging you into consciousness at the ideal moment in your sleep cycle. You reach for your smartphone to check your stats. Congratulations! You slept well.

A half-dozen apps are fighting for your attention as you return to full consciousness. Your Fitbit has documented yesterday spent on the couch, burning almost no calories and barely raising your heart rate above nap level, never mind that 10,000-step daily goal. The Parrot Flower Power app says your house plants are thirsty, and Tractive Motion informs you that your dog has spent most of the week sprawled on his side, likely dreaming of bacon and long walks on the beach.

2015 CES: Day 2

You work through a series of yoga postures on your SmartMat, sensors measuring the pressure distribution in downward dog and warrior pose while a digital coach suggests adjustments. Your pigeon pose needs serious work. Afterward, you hold the Skulpt device to your chest so an electric current can analyze your pectorals for muscle quality and body fat, sending the data straight to your phone—another chart, another graph, another set of numbers and stats to digest on the way to becoming a fitter, healthier, more quantified version of yourself.

All over the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week, devices were promising better living through data. A bracelet tracked sun exposure; headphones measured running cadence; a headband monitored concentration during three-minute attention exercises, the sea sounds turning stormy if your mind wandered.

Of course, this type of data can be tremendously helpful. Monitoring physical activity—or lack thereof—can motivate people to hit the gym or take Pickles out for an evening stroll. Apps that allow users to share their stats can result in encouragement from friends. And online competitions that pit individuals or groups against each other may lead to more steps walked, miles run or pounds lost. A 2007 review published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that participants given a simple pedometer increased their physical activity by almost 27 percent. Setting a specific daily goal also prompted big gains, the data driving them to do more.

2015 CES Unveiled

However, in 2015 technology companies have moved well past devices that just measure one or two basic metrics. Every new wristband or smart watch promises new data, from the vertical oscillation of our running stride to the fractions of seconds between our heartbeats. (The Apple app store already has multiple options for tracking bowel movements.)

As brand reps at CES preached the benefits of all these numbers, pointing to perky little charts and brightly colored graphs, I couldn’t help wondering about the side effects of digitizing and quantifying every aspect of our daily lives. With more and more people devoting more and more time to email, social networking and other forms of digital media, perhaps the advantages of plugging in our sleep cycles and yoga practices don’t outweigh the pleasures of keeping certain activities delightfully disconnected. I don’t need an app to tell me I feel fatigued or to recognize the burn of a particularly deep stretch. I’ve got a brain for that.

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Sarah Feldberg

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