Open platforms, peak performance states, and Apple: The future of wearable tech

open platforms peak performance states and appleMost of the recent news surrounding wearable technology has focused on offerings from major sports brands like Nike and Under Armour or novel applications of mobile tech like Jawbone or Fitbit. But the underlying concepts and executions have been at play in the medical industry for a while now, and behind-the-scenes players like Zephyr Technologies have been working both ends of the spectrum. Zephyr’s partnerships include Under Armour (they provided much of what became the E39 compression shirt and the new Armour 39 strap) and the US military, who work with them to devise real-time medical monitoring of soldiers in battle.

We caught up with Zephyr CEO Brian Russell to talk about the evolution of his industry, what consumers should be looking for, and how Apple’s rumored iWatch could shake things up.

Zephyr has taken a deliberate open-source position as a sensor company that supports all developers and applications – why have you done that rather than launch your own proprietary offering like Nike, Jawbone, or FitBit?

[We] would love to see the killer app that teaches people more specifically about themselves.

We thought a lot about this when we started Zephyr and realized that the industry is way too early in its lifecycle to begin locking down its earliest applications. There’s a massive amount of creativity out there on the development side, and there’s huge churn in popular preferences, so we took the position that we wanted to support and accelerate innovation rather than try to predict and control it.

The companies that you mention that are launching proprietary applications tend to emphasize what’s unique about their product, their metrics – anything really, that lets them translate the data into a trademarked offering. They’re more in the edu-tainment space than the true “quantified self” zone. You get information or points or scores, and you can upload and share them socially and all the rest, but there’s very little that’s actually customized to your own unique physiology.

We get why they’re doing that, but would love to see the killer app that teaches people more specifically about themselves. Until then, we’re just trying to develop the best hardware and let everyone find the uses that stick.

There are so many options and varieties of “wearable tech” crowding the market today. What advice would you offer consumers on how to choose what’s right for them?

You’re basically assessing all of these offerings on two competing axes: wearability and accuracy. The less intrusive a device is, the longer I’m likely to wear it, but generally, the smaller the battery, the less regular the data transmission and the fewer numbers of sensors capturing what’s really going on for me. The more accurate an instrument is, the more it interrupts my typical movement patterns and the less likely I am to wear it all the time.

armour 3 watch

At one extreme is the FitBit, which is as simple as putting it in your pocket and getting on with your day. But in this case, the device is mostly novelty with a foundation of sensing technology as the hook. On the other extreme, think of an fMRI machine; it’s amazingly accurate, but crazy expensive, and completely disruptive to anything other than the act of getting measured.

To go a level deeper into wearability, you’ll want to figure out which mode works best for you. We’ve seen three basic applications take the lead with different user populations. Patches are very popular in healthcare, especially in patient care where the users aren’t fully resourced to manage the device themselves. Compression shirts, like the Under Armour E39, are big with athletes who want to balance very dynamic movements and still keep sensors tracking. And lastly, chest straps, like conventional heart rate monitors, are a typical choice for the fitness community. A challenge for the watch and smartphone sensors is that they are so far from our center of mass that they don’t give us accurate readings on what our whole body is actually experiencing.

You’ve tested and developed Zephyr’s products in close coordination with not only elite athletes, but also the military’s special forces. What’s been the most surprising thing you’ve learned from tracking and measuring the best of the best?

I’d say the biggest insight, and this came from working with the special operations teams – who are basically guys in their forties with the physical and mental conditioning of Olympic and NFL athletes, with all the bangs and scrapes you’d expect, plus battle wounds – was how they could turn their “flow,” or peak performance state, on and off on a dime.

armour 39

When they’d be in combat simulations, busting into rooms, sweeping and clearing buildings, distinguishing between hostiles and hostages in a blink, their physiology would drop into that zone. They’re heart rates would equalize and become strongly coherent, their respiration would level out, and their psychology – their hot decision making – would become amazingly accurate. And all in conditions that would have most of us shaking in the corner!

What they’ve done is train a level of higher-order decision-making that goes far beyond simple muscle memory; they are “playing to win” in conditions that drive everyone else to simply play not to lose.

There’s been a ton of buzz lately about Apple entering the wearable tech market with some sort of “iWatch.” Assuming the reports are correct, what do you think it’ll look like? what should we expect from Cupertino? Are these guys going to be the Nike Fuel killers?

Well, first off, Nike and Apple share directors and collaborate pretty closely, so I’d be surprised if they take a straight shot at the Fuel franchise. Apple’s one of the best at following this mantra, “features are inversely proportional to value.” The iPod was in no way the most complicated MP3 player; it thrived as much because of what it left out. So I’d expect them to come up with a very clean, user-centric design.


Stanford’s Medical School has done a comprehensive 5-year study on fitness algorithms. You need a minimum of three metrics to precisely measure what’s really going on in a given subject; accelerometry, heart rate, and respiration. Apple’s got the three axis accelerometers in their devices already, along with optical sensors like the iPhone camera that can approximate heart rate and heart rate variability, so respiration measures and maybe even galvanic skin response would round that out pretty well.

I don’t know whether they’ll create an “Apple Number” like Nike’s Fuel points or Under Armour’s Willpower. Beyond Nike, Apple’s already getting beaten around by Samsung who’ve got an FDA approved phone, and sensing tablets that are getting strong penetration in the medical market. If I were them, I’d be focusing on the 15,000 Baby Boomers who are turning 65 each day and finding a way to keep them moving for even 20 minutes a day. If they could get folks to look after themselves between the ages of 55-65, so they could live well until 75-85? I’d say that would be an achievement that could outstrip the iPhone in scope and dollar impact.

Emerging Tech

The world’s most accurate clock will lose just one second every 14 billion years

Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in in Boulder, Colorado, have built an atomic clock capable of telling the time with an astonishing 18 digits of precision.
Home Theater

OLED or LED? We pick the winner in the battle of competing TV tech

The acronyms OLED and LED sound and look very similar, but the two technologies are vastly different in terms of engineering, performance, and capabilities. Which technology wins when you pit OLED versus LED in a TV?

Rejoice, for Samsung's hole-y Galaxy A8S will be here on December 10

Samsung is building exciting, technologically innovative midrange phones, and one of the next to be revealed could be the Galaxy A8S. It may give us a strong hint what the future Galaxy S10 will look like.
Emerging Tech

Feast your eyes on the wildest, most elaborate Rube Goldberg machines ever built

Want to see something totally mesmerizing? Check out several of the best Rube Goldberg machines from across the internet, including one that serves cake and other that do ... nothing particularly useful.
Emerging Tech

The 20 best tech toys for kids will make you wish you were 10 again

Looking for the perfect toy or gadget for your child? Thankfully, we've rounded up some of our personal favorite tech toys, including microscopes, computer kits, and a spherical droid from a galaxy far, far away.
Emerging Tech

Scoot your commute! Here are the 9 best electric scooters on the market

Electric scooters are an affordable, convenient way to minimize your carbon footprint and zip around town. Check out 8 of our current favorites, whether you're working with a budget or have some cash to spare.

Has Columbus, Ohio raised its IQ yet? A progress report from the mayor

Two years ago, the city of Columbus in Ohio received $40 million to pursue smart city initiatives. So, what’s happened since then? We spoke with its mayor, Andrew Ginther, to discuss progress and what’s ahead.
Emerging Tech

Sick of walking everywhere? Here are the best electric skateboards you can buy

Thanks for Kickstarter and Indiegogo, electric skateboards are carving a bigger niche than you might think. Whether you're into speed, mileage, or something a bit more stylish, here are the best electric skateboards on the market.
Emerging Tech

Hear the sounds of wind on Mars from InSight’s latest audio recording

NASA's InSight craft has captured the sound of the wind blowing on the surface of Mars. The audio file was picked up by the air pressure sensor and the seismometer which detected vibrations from the 10 to 15 mph winds in the area.
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Folding canoes and ultra-fast water filters

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!
Emerging Tech

New experiment casts doubt on claims to have identified dark matter

A South Korean experiment called COSINE-100 has attempted to replicate the claims of dark matter observed by the Italian DAMA/LIBRA experiment, but has failed to replicate the observations.
Emerging Tech

White dwarf star unexpectedly emitting bright ‘supersoft’ X-rays

NASA's Chandra Observatory has discovered a white dwarf star which is emitting supersoft X-rays, calling into question the conventional wisdom about how X-rays are produced by dying stars.

Amazon scouted airport locations for its cashier-free Amazon Go stores

Representatives of Amazon Go checkout-free retail stores connected with officials at Los Angeles and San Jose airports in June to discuss the possibility of cashier-free grab-and-go locations in busy terminals.
Emerging Tech

Full-fledged drone delivery service set to land in remote Canadian community

Some drone delivery operations seem rather crude in their execution, but Drone Delivery Canada is building a comprehensive platform that's aiming to take drone delivery to the next level.