Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

The Extremely Quantified Self: Meet Rachel Kalmar, Who Wears 21 Fitness Trackers at the Same Time (Video)

Rachel Kalmar wears a sleeve’s worth of step-counting wristbands and a sort of ammo belt of clip-on trackers. Nike FuelBand, Fitbit, Basis, Pebble, Withings Pulse, Jawbone Up, BodyMedia Link — she’s got them all. In total, she has 21 wearable personal-activity trackers monitoring her every step and every waking hour. Every day.

It’s a stunt of giving up her body for science, and kind of a cool punk fashion statement — and a daunting amount of syncing and charging.

Kalmar is a data scientist at Misfit Wearables, maker of the Shine, yet another personal-tracking device, whose claim to fame is that its pendant shape and slender band makes it less ugly than many of its competitors. So, about a third of the trackers she wears every day are different Shine models that she is testing on different parts of her body.

I’ve seen other people from fitness startups wear multiple devices to compare their accuracy. Kalmar said she doesn’t care about that.

When we chatted at the Privacy Identity Innovation conference in Seattle last week, Kalmar’s trackers seemed to agree that she had walked about 5,000 or 6,000 steps that day, though a couple had died, and others needed to be connected to phones to get a readout.

Kalmar said she hadn’t gotten any great benefit from the daily activity totals, give or take a few conflicting estimates.

“I’m a data scientist, I love data, but numbers are not intrinsically motivating,” she said. “Since we don’t yet have the killer app for step counters or tracking devices, it’s unclear how you use this data. I know if I’ve been active or not, and the histograms don’t tell me anything else.”

Kalmar said her main insight from wearing 21 trackers is that her data is locked up with each of them. (To be fair, this was probably her perspective going in, as well; she also organizes a San Francisco Meetup group about hacking sensors.) She wants device makers to allow their users more open access to their raw data, so they and application developers can make interesting cause-and-effect scenarios happen.

What Kalmar would like is for her daily measurements — and their deviations from her norm and from her goals — to trigger something in her environment.

For example, Kalmar dreams of a digital mood ring, where a lack of her measured experience of sunlight leads to a boost in ambient indoor lighting, in order to avoid Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Or she’d love for her trackers to text a designated friend when she’s behind some stated goal, so the friend can help inspire her to move more. Or perhaps when a tracker detected that she had been sitting at her desk for too long, her broadband speed should slow down to encourage her to step away from the computer.

“What motivates me is the people in my environment and the other things I interact with,” Kalmar said.

Here’s a video interview in which Kalmar gives a tour of her wearables, and talks about what she has learned from them:

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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work