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Wired for wellness

A local company is making clothing that will monitor your workouts, and more

Tuesday, May 02, 2000

By Anita Srikameswaran, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Want your clothes to reveal more about you than just your washboard (or washed up) abs, perfect (or puny) pecs and sculpted (or scrawny) back? SenseWear, a new line of high-tech togs that includes skintight halter tops, jog bras and clingy tanks, can tell you if you're exercising effectively, getting enough sleep and more.

 
Astro Teller, chief executive officer of Bodymedia, Inc. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette) 

Actually, self awareness is the goal for the Pittsburgh manufacturer of the garments, Bodymedia Inc., a start-up heavy on Carnegie Mellon University graduates. The company sums up the concept in its provocative slogan: "See how you feel."

The hip, eye-catching clothes and accessories contain innovative sensors that measure heart rate, body temperature and other physiologic factors. The collected data is then interpreted online to help wearers create and monitor a balanced, healthy lifestyle.

"The thing that's really going to change society with respect to health care, wellness and fitness is the ability for people to start to learn about themselves," said Astro Teller, one of Bodymedia's founders and its chief executive officer. "Bodymedia is willing to invest the time, energy and money to give people that view of themselves."

For 18 months, the company, located Downtown, has been putting together the components of a system to do just that.

A staff of clothing designers, medical experts and engineers devised prototypes of computerized garments that can sense and transmit health data from the wearer to Bodymedia's Web site.

The task meant paying close attention not only to sensor technology, but also to the shape the devices needed to be to conform to the body and its motion.

They also had to make clothes with appealing colors and stylish cuts that people would be eager to wear. Fabrics used in the workout wear breathe and wick away moisture. In some items, such as the jog bra, the sensor can be removed when the garment is washed.

 
In publicity photos, models wear SenseWear prototypes. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette) 

"My goal in making the physical device is actually to make it as invisible to the user as possible," said Teller, who's an artificial intelligence expert. "Very comfortable, very easy to use, something that blends into your life so you forget it's there."

But SenseWear doesn't forget the data it has collected about you while you've worn it.

Teller said that some pieces, such as a ring, will require that the user place it on a base by a home computer to download measurements into the Web site's analysis center, called the Health Manager. Other items will use wireless technology to transmit the information at certain times, even if you've tossed the garment on the floor beside your bed and gone to sleep.

"These devices are appealing, they're intriguing, they're in sync with the technolust that's out there in today's society," said Dr. Craig Liden, who three months ago became Bodymedia's chief medical officer after working with the staff as a consultant. "I was wowed right from the very beginning."

What excites Liden even more is the possibility that people might be more successful at adopting behaviors, such as eating right and getting some regular exercise, with the encouragement and insight the online health advisor system provides.

When a potential customer signs on to the Bodymedia site, he or she would first answer questions that identify personality traits and health behaviors. Liden has structured the survey based on one he developed more than 15 years in his practice at wellness clinics in Monroeville and Harrisburg.

The user will get some immediate feedback about his or her strengths and weaknesses in terms of creating and maintaining a healthy lifestyle, as well as suggestions about diet, exercise, sleep and so on.

"We're not going to embrace any particular exercise regimen, any particular or fad diet, but really just give people sound advice," Liden explained. "At that point, the user will have a chance to purchase a piece of SenseWear and log on a regular basis to the Health Manager at the Web site."

The site, protected by a password, will provide tips to stay motivated and ways to get advice if problems arise. If the data indicates a potential medical problem, the individual will be advised to seek professional attention. While generalizations may be gathered about the group of users, an individual's data and its interpretation will be kept confidential.

"We understand people's squeamishness with this kind of information so it's important we develop trust with the people who are using our system," Teller said. "We are already setting up the Fort Knox of security systems."

The data is compiled into a "health index" that tells the user how successful he or she has been that day, or week, at achieving goals. One could also look at specific parameters and situations, such as checking if heart rate was appropriately elevated for 30 minutes of jogging. The data might also show that there were times of stress, such as a meeting with the boss.

"Our goal is to help people become more aware of themselves in ways they've never done before and have a fun and engaging time doing that," Liden said.

The fitness industry has already spawned gadgets such as pedometers to measure mileage during a run, pulse monitors and computerized workout diaries. There are Web sites such as iFit.com, which downloads new workouts into programmable fitness equipment to prevent boredom, and GetFit.com, a personalized exercise site.

Does the use of all these technogadgets make a difference in promoting healthier lifestyles?

They may, according to researchers at Brown University who studied the effect of online interactions on a weight loss program. A special Web site provided all study participants educational information. But some people also got regular feedback and could log self-monitored diet and calorie assessments into online programs designed by the researchers.

Under preliminary results of the yearlong study, the group that had the interactive online experience lost more weight than those who had access to only educational materials.

Bodymedia's blend of cool fashions, high tech and individualized health monitoring may give it a boost in a competitive fitness marketplace.

And it could develop devices useful to hospitals or to research. After all, most hospital patients would probably prefer wearing a lightweight armband that continually monitors blood pressure to being awakened in the wee hours by nurses to take the readings.

Bodymedia will be doing what's called beta testing of its devices this summer to make sure the SenseWear and Health Manager work as they should. During this process, a small group of people will use a SenseWear item and discuss its pros and cons.

If all goes well, the item will be available this fall, initially in limited quantities and without a lot of publicity, so that more adjustments can be made if necessary.

Although the company still is working out details, it expects the cost of its products to range from $70 to $400. For those using the online component, there would be an additional small monthly fee.

Interested consumers can sign up on a waiting list on the company's Web site to obtain the apparel when it's available.

"We are looking for people who are excited to be part of the process, who understand that some of the problems have been shaken out but some may still exist," Teller said. "We'd like to sign up early users."



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