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Personal health and wellness technologies are projected to be a $5 billion business this year, according to the Consumer Electronics Association.
Even President Barack Obama wears a wearable wellness device — a Fitbit — on occasion.
But, as it turns out, wearable technologies have a big obstacle to overcome: sensors — the miniaturized devices that measure things like speed and motion.
They are technically called MEMS, or microelectromechanical systems. We are most familiar with them in the forms of the accelerometers and gyroscopes that help smartphones and tablets keep track of motion. This is how we play games on our smartphones by just tilting and moving them, and how wearable wrist trackers count up our steps.
"The sensor market today is being driven by mobile technology," Charlene Marini, vice president of marketing of embedded segments at ARM, said earlier this year, in an interview with Marketplace at the Consumer Electronics Show. "There's a huge volume, of course, in mobile. And so mobile technology is being reused in things like wearables."
That reuse has had its limits. In wearable devices, current MEMS sensors have not been able to keep up with some of the rigors imposed on them. For example, they have not been as power efficient as needed.
They also do not perform all the functions that wearable device designers dream up.
"A lot of these wearables end up in a sock drawer," says Karen Lightman, executive director of the MEMS Industry Group. "After you watch your steps for one week you're like, 'Yeah, I get it. I understand. I need to walk more. OK, that's not helpful.'"
But what if you could track more than just your steps or your heart rate? There are efforts to do that by addressing the shortcomings of current MEMS sensors in key ways: building new sensors, creating software that better operates those sensors in more rigorous conditions, and better understanding the data coming out of current sensors.
The Chicago-based startup Rithmio is taking the latter approach. You can see the function of a program they've created in the video below:
Rithmio co-founder Adam Tilton is working on a program that can track all exercises by learning the unique patterns of movement from each exercise, as performed by each individual user. In a demonstration, he showed how Rithmio's program could recognize a new weight-training exercise within four repetitions, consistently, in multiple attempts.
"So, if you give me 10 seconds of motion-sensing data, I'll tell you whether the user did 10 jumping-jacks, or five bicep curls or whatever," Tilton says.
Tilton could make his program even more accurate, if he had more sensors — ones embedded in clothes. But put those clothes in a washing machine, and the sensors would be ruined. Current sensors can't be washed.
"There's still issues with respect to interoperability. There's still issues with respect to energy and ... power management," says Lightman. "And for wearables that's a big deal." That's because consumers will want wearable devices (even smart shoes and T-shirts) that don't need recharging too often.
There's a race to overcome these limits. Recently, Samsung came out with a new all-in-one chip that's more energy-efficient and has better communication. Intel has announced a similar chip.
Merini says sensors for wearables are quickly evolving, and within a few years there will be a "greater use of new types of sensors, that might not be applicable to phones. For instance, body type sensors, heart rate sensors, etc."
Mehran Mehregany, an engineering professor at Case Western Reserve University, is keeping track of technological advancements in wearable sensors. He says there are efforts to improve sensor technology so that they can measure not just our external activities and surroundings, but also what's happening inside our bodies.
"For example, it would be fantastic to do long-term, non-intrusive blood glucose monitoring," Mehregany says. "The sensor technology is not there to be able to do that type of measurement reliably."
Mehregany also points to accurate, reliable blood pressure monitoring, which he says is the "Holy Grail" for wearable sensors. Right now, MEMS sensors for consumer-grade wearable gadgets still can't reliably perform that measurement either, Mehregany says.
But, he predicts that in 25 years, sensors will measure many vital signs and will be embedded in us, acting like a biological black box. Just as black boxes today keep track of the mechanics of an airplane.
Philadelphia has legalized Airbnb and agreed to tax rentals booked through the site. The city is preparing itself for two huge events — The 2016 Democratic National Convention a year from now. But first up, the pope’s visit.
According to Philadelphia’s tourism bureau, more than 1.5 million visitors are expected to descend on the city for the Papal event.
Philadelphia has 15,849 hotel rooms. That might not be enough. And when there aren’t enough hotel rooms, prices go way up. Georgios Zervas, marketing professor at Boston University, has studied this. “If people want to be in Philly when the pope is visiting, and prices are extremely high,” Zervas says. "Then they might decide not to visit the city at all.”
Which would explain why the city would legalize and tax Airbnb rentals. But how many people even know that in a lot of cities, Airbnb still isn’t legal? Well, if you’re someone wanting to rent out your place you could look at Airbnb’s “Terms of Service."
It clearly states it’s up to you to check. But if you’re like most people: “We scroll to the bottom, click on agree, and move on,” says Cait Lamberton, who teaches marketing at the University of Pittsburgh. Usually at this point in the transaction, people intending to rent out some space are going to do it, Lamberton says.
“You know they’ve probably taken some pictures, they’ve probably written a description, they’re probably thinking about the rate they should charge,” she says.
In other words the legality of the transaction is kind of an afterthought.
It's time for Silicon Tally! How well have you kept up with the week in tech news?
If you’re planning on shopping at a Wal-Mart on this holiday, you may encounter a throwback from the company’s past. The Wal-Mart greeter is making a comeback at the front of some stores. In about 300 of its 4,500 stores, the company is testing a new program to cut down on theft.
“A few years ago, greeters were moved from the front door entrance to what’s called ‘action alley,’ which is over by the self-checkout area,” says Wal-Mart spokesman Brian Nick. Now the company is experimenting with moving them back, to greet customers as they walk in and let would-be shoplifters know someone is watching.
“They serve a twofold function,” says Paula Rosenblum, managing partner at Retail Systems Research. “Ideally they make you feel welcome and, theoretically, they nip a few basis points off of shrink.”
“Shrink” is the industry term for merchandise lost to shoplifting, employee theft, and vendor fraud. It cost retailers an estimated $44 billion last year, according to a new survey by University of Florida criminology professor Richard Hollinger.
Wal-Mart greeters will sometimes check receipts at the door. In other stores, the company is adding “asset protection” specialists in bright yellow vests.
That's how much analysts say Digitour, a traveling show featuring teen social media celebrities, is set to make this year. Buzzfeed embedded a reporter on the tour, which has been packing sold-out theaters with centennial girls who want to catch a glimpse their favorite Vine and YouTube personalities. It's unlikely you've heard of them, but Digitour's acts together boast tens of millions of followers, and a sponsored six-second video from them costs six figures. It's big business, big enough to potentially blur the line between "internet famous" and just "famous."2
That's how many black-owned banks are in Chicago -- half as many as there were just a few years ago -- and one is on the brink of shutting down. That's a pretty major loss; during segregation those banks would give out loans to black homeowners and entrepreneurs when no one else would, and today community banks still diffuse racial prejudice in loan applications.300 stores
That's how many of Wal-Mart's stores will be testing out greeters at the front entrance as an anti-theft measure. After having been moved to the self-checkout area for the past couple years, the greeters will be returned to their spot front and center — the idea being potential thieves will be deterred by the knowledge that someone is watching. Last year, theft cost retailers an estimated $44 billion.
That's how far ratings dropped from last year at Viacom's cable networks, Bloomberg reported. The company at MTV in particular, all part of Sumner Redstone's media empire, is having trouble adjusting to disruption in the industry, but the reason why is divisive. Executives blame poor audience measurement, while others blame Redstone's alleged health problems and an unwillingness to take risks on programming.10 percent
That's the percentage drop in digital music sales in the first half of 2015, according to a report on Nielsen stats by Billboard. But as the Verge reports, even more startling is the fact that people are streaming music twice as much as they did during the same period of time last year.