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Gadgets bring health care into the home

From a fork that slows you down when eating to apps allowing remote monitoring, technology could be key to well-being

  • The Hapifork smart electronic fork vibrates and lights up to help its user slow down to a healthy eating paceImage Credit: AP
  • Companies and developers at this month’s Consumer Electronics Show unveiled a parade of apps, accessories and Image Credit: Corbis
GN Focus

It does not sound a promising combination: geeks tend to neglect health and fitness; Sin City discourages moderation and sense; and conferences are graveyards of diet and exercise. Yet companies and developers at this month’s Consumer Electronics Show, an annual event for computer geeks and couch potatoes that brings over 100,000 industry professionals to Las Vegas, unveiled a parade of apps, accessories and gizmos to help lose weight, eat properly, exercise regularly, prevent disease, manage illness and banish infirmity. Believe the hype and it is a mystery how our species survived this long without technology.

“Everybody could benefit from this,” says Philippe Monteiro de Rocha, an engineer with the French company Hapilabs, holding a fork. And it’s not just any fork but a prototype Hapifork, a piece of smart cutlery to help you slim. “It has a capacity sensor in the handle that monitors the speed you eat,” he explains. Eat too fast and the fork vibrates, reminding you to slow down. People feel full after 20 minutes of eating, so if you eat less during that time, you’re on your way to a thinner you. An unexpected hit at the expo. “We’ve been covered by [journalists from] 62 countries in the past 48 hours,” marvels Hapilabs’ Renee Blodgett. The forks are due to go on sale in the US this summer for $99 (Dh363.6) and in the UK later in the year.

Wireless technology

Among the thousands of products ranging from daft to useful to ingenious, the connecting thread is wireless technology using smartphones and tablets to collect data about your body in real time. “Everybody is trying to leverage this technology into the field of wellness,” says Ryan Hruska, an engineer with Vancive, a Chicago-based medical technology company exhibiting a wearable sensor called Metria. You put the small patch on your chest for seven days, during which it measures heartbeat, skin hydration, breathing, steps taken and sleep patterns, recording the duration and quality of sleep (poor, good, excellent) on the basis of how much you tossed and turned.

This information is sent via Bluetooth and can be instantly tracked on a phone or tablet, meaning you can be on the other side of the world and check up on grandma’s precise medical condition, says Hruska. “A lot of elderly people live on their own. This way you can make sure they’re OK.”

The disposable patch, which lasts seven days and can be worn in the shower, is due to go on sale this year for between $30-$40 (Dh110-Dh146). The US Air Force is considering it to monitor pilots. Drug companies could use it to observe subjects’ adherence during drug trials. Insurance companies could, in theory, use it to verify medical conditions. “It will become more difficult to lie to insurance companies but it cuts both ways. If you’re taking medication as you should you’d be able to prove it,” says Tim Ensor, a product developer with Cambridge Consultants. The British firm’s wares include an algorithm that uses a bike, Bluetooth and smartphone to calculate and adjust the gear for optimal efficiency.

Wearable fitness devices

Exhibitors hammered the message that smartphones and tablets could now help liberate us by processing medical data instantly and precisely. “Some diabetics need to test their blood sugar six to 12 times a day,” says Joseph Martorano, of iHealth, a California firm that has developed an app to record and store such information using one of the increasingly ubiquitous cloud services. Dozens of other companies such as Fitbit, Fitbug and BodyMedia vied to show wearable fitness devices you can strap around your wrist or ankle to record, it seems, every pore that opens.

If information management alone could deliver health and fitness, then soon we would all be athletes. Sadly there is no app for willpower. There is, however, a gadget you can strap around your head to harness your brainwaves. “You just have to concentrate,” says Steve Castellotti, the founder of PuzzleBox, snapping a black band around my head. A sensor node rests on my forehead, a device is clipped to my ear. Castellotti taps on a computer. “Ready.”

My brow furrows, my eyes squint and hey presto, a toy helicopter buzzes upwards, controlled by my thoughts. The device works by measuring brainwave electroencephalogram and heartbeat electrocardiography. Seconds later the helicopter plunges. I lost concentration.

The point of the software, says Andrea Shukis of NeuroSky, which has partnered with PuzzleBox on the brain-controlled helicopter, is to teach the value of concentration and focus. They also had on display furry cat ears with sensors that swivel, prick and droop according to what you’re thinking. “You can use it to teach children and to help adults keep their brains active.”

Who would have thought: Las Vegas, the temple of indulgence, showing us how to eat less, monitor health and exercise willpower.