Activity Sensing & Personal Analytics

I think that this year will be the breakout year for wearable personal analytics gadgets, those bracelets, clips, shoe sensors and apps that count our steps, track our fitness, watch what we eat and analyse our sleep patterns. This month saw these gizmos capture some significant limelight at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas with everything from smart watches to kids pedometers, and from geeky bangles to the now notorious Hapifork (yes it’s a fork, but it buzzes to tell you to slow down when your are eating too fast!).

In the past these types of gadgets have tended to focus on measuring one type of activity, perhaps sleep, or counting steps and measuring distance and speed with the help of a connected phone app; it all really started back in 2006 when Apple announced their partnership with Nike and launched the Nike+ pedometer, which communicated with your iPod nano as you exercised. But today devices like Jawbone’s UP are taking this a lot further, by combining activity tracking with sleep monitoring and allowing you to track your eating. And I must say there is something very compelling as you start to use these devices and related apps as you quickly become immersed in your personal activity data. It’s fun to slice and dice your progress as the weeks roll in to months.

I think that two things will happen this year to push this tech into the mainstream. First they will be come truly wearable. This means that their batteries will last for days, they will offer over the air synching, and they will survive a trip to the shower. They will also start to look good!

Second these apps and devices will start to get a lot smarter. Right now I need to tell my iOS RunKeeper app when I am jogging vs cycling vs skiing. But in truth this information is hiding in plain sight in the patterns of accelerometer and location data the app collects. Data that this year’s new crop of apps will start to mine and use. How exactly? Well identifying the activity is just the first step and, truth be told, not a terribly interesting one. The next logical step will be to use this data to make recommendations to people for new products and services, running shoes or fitness programmes, for example. Maybe offer a discount for a local gym that specialises in the type of cross training that you are not getting from your run-focused fitness schedule. Will my app recommend a change in my activity or eating habits to aid a better night’s sleep?  Or what using our activity data to identify and create communities of like-minded people to exercise together. This is all just around the corner. And as I wrote this blog post I came across Amiigo on the crowdfunding site Indiegogo, which aims to do much of this by June this year.


At last. Sketch. A Vector Graphics App for the Masses.

A big part of my day is spent writing (scientific papers, lectures, research proposals, business plans etc) and a big part of this is diagrams, charts, and other visual elements. I like creating visuals. I’m not especially good at it but it’s enjoyable and a great way to really capture the essence of a complex concept. I’m embarrassed to say that in all of this time (almost 20 years) I’ve come to rely mainly on the likes of Powerpoint (and sometimes Keynote) to create these visuals. What’s wrong with that you might ask? Well these are both capable presentation packages but their core competence is the creation and management of slides, not creating art work. Sure they provide some powerful drawing capabilities, choc full of all of the usual tools that one might expect (shapes, lines, curves, elaborate files and patterns) but they stop far short of the type of capabilities available through Illustrator or Photoshop.

So why not use Illustrator and Photoshop? I’ve tried but these are great examples of feature-bloat. Both options provide so many features that it’s difficult to know where to start and I have always found myself wondering whether “I am doing it right”. So back to Powerpoint and Keynote it has always been.

Then earlier this week I came across Sketch for the Mac, which promised Illustrator-like vector graphics but with a minimally viable feature-set and a great Mac interface. I must say that after only a few hours of use it doesn’t disappoint. The interface feels familiar in the way of great mac apps. It provides all of the shape creation and text tools that one would expect but it also exposes a number of hugely powerful vector manipulation tools that are absent from the likes of Powerpoint and Keynote. For instance, the ability to create new shapes by logically combining individual shapes (union, intersection, difference, overlap) is fabulous and working with simply layers is a godsend; I am always ‘loosing’ my shapes in Powerpoint as they become hidden in a mess overlapping elements. There is also a very powerful set of fill features that allow for the usual colour, gradient, and texture fills, but also make it possible to combine and blend fills together.


Sketch is available for a free  30-day trial from the Sketch website. After that it’s a €45 purchase from the Mac App Store. I think I’ll be getting it once the trial period expires and the app is certainly garnering some strong reviews and here’s a useful video walk-thru that gives a good overview of the basic capabilities.

Ski Tech – Les Deux Alpes (2013)

Every year I go on a long-weekend style ski trip with two pals. We are much more enthusiastic about our skiing than our skill-levels would suggest, but we are triers and we have (relatively) safe fun on the slopes. We all have our different roles. There is a fearless leader who likes nothing more than to plan a full day’s skiing; actually there is something he likes more than that, re-planning the day’s skiing. There is the one who keeps us all laughing and entertained. And then there is me. I do the gadgets, perhaps a little obsessively, so much so that I look not unlike an ungainly Borg as I career down the slopes with various cameras, packs, and dongles strapped to my person.

This year I think our technology came of age and so I thought a brief review was in order. Apart from the usual gear the new additions this time included:

  • GoPro2 camera.
  • GoPro Wifi Backpac.
  • iPhone5 with GoPro app and RunKeeper app.

I brought the camera last year but its was always a bit of hassle to use because, other than audible feedback, there was no way of reliably knowing whether the camera was on or off, whether it was taking stills or videos, and if it was recording then where was it pointing? The new GoPro Wifi kit is a great solution.  It consists of two main components. First there is the Wifi Backpac which, as usual for GoPro attaches to the back of the camera. It broadcasts a local wifi network for a  remote control component (or mobile phone app) to connect to. The remote straps to your wrist and provides a duplicate interface for the camera controls. So at a glance its easy to see whether we are shooting or not. It works well.

The mobile GoPro app (iOS) also works with the wifi backpac and has the added advantage that it streams video in near realtime to your phone. It’s a nice feature but a bit gimmicky, at least for our needs, and to be honest in the end the iOS app didnt get much use as it was inconvenient to fish for my phone to control the camera as I negotiated lifts and pistes. The wrist control was the way to go. The found the batteries on all 3 devices (camera, wifi backpac, and wrist control) lasted for almost exactly the same duration, a good 4 hours or so of usage, which was fine.


For me the big revelation on this trip was my RunKeeper app. In previous years we have tracked our progress on dedicated GPS devices, which barely last the day on a single charge, and offer dubious reliability and accuracy. I’ve been using RunKeeper on iPhone for jogging for a while now so we tried it for skiing, without expecting too much. However it was superb: great location accuracy (verified when we overlayed our routes on the piste maps) and very good speed and altitude tracking. And best of all it didnt seem to kill my iPhone battery. Happy days!

So all in all a great test-run for the big family ski holiday in February, where we three mates bring the kids and significant others off for a week of more leisurely skiing.