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Data mine your body with biometric devices

Motoactv comes across as a kind of Nike+ for multiple exercises. It lets you quickly generate fitness goals for walking, running, cycling, elliptical or step-machine workouts. You can set time, calorie or distance goals. It’s also a pretty good MP3 player.


It takes 2,886 steps to get from my house to the offices of The Globe and Mail, a trip I make in 26 minutes and 41 seconds, in the process burning 185 calories.

Pretty much everything you do, from the type of breakfast cereal you buy to your decision to read this article, generates data. As such, one of the holy grails of the digital age is to capture as much of that data as possible and analyze it for useful information. Usually, the entity doing the collecting and analyzing is a corporation, and the end-goal is to find some novel way of getting you to buy something. Change your relationship status on Facebook to "Engaged?" Ok, here's an ad for a wedding-dress store. And so on.

The data-capture revolution isn't really new. Supermarkets have been doing it for years. The Web, and the arsenal of high-end gizmos we carry around with us every day, have just made it much easier to do. But over the past few years, big-data analytics went from a mostly corporate pursuit to something more personal. With the advent of all-sensing smartphones and all-encompassing web access, people quickly realized they could easily collect and all kinds of data about themselves – from fluctuations in heart rate and weight to sleep cycles to general happiness. The theory being that somewhere in this onslaught of numbers lies the secret to a better, more efficient life.

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For the most part, the personal metrics thing has played out in the realm of health and fitness. It started out pretty small, with projects such as 100 Push-ups, which, as you may have guessed, help people get fit enough to do 100 push-ups. The project's web site gets users to log their progress over six weeks, doing more and more push-ups every week. There's nothing overly complicated about this set-up. In fact, you can recreate it yourself with a single spreadsheet and about 30 seconds of work. And yet the site proved sneakily effective – something about seeing your progress quantified on a screen sparks the natural human fear of regressing, and acts as a driver to push a little further next time. And if you can also chart the progress of your friends, well, that's even more motivation.

Today, the personal metrics industry is booming, in large part because the devices you carry in your pocket can readily measure your speed and location, among other things. Perhaps the most well-known fitness data gizmo right now is Nike+, a software-hardware combo that lives on your iPod or iPhone and collects information about your running history. Besides helping you build a detailed database of your progress, the program has a major social component, letting you challenge your friends and boast of your achievements in recurring and somewhat annoying Facebook posts.

But while Nike+ may be the best-known of the fitness metrics devices, there's no shortage of new ones hitting the market. Some of these new gadgets are extremely niche, focusing on a particular set of information. Others are designed to be as multipurpose as possible. Over the past couple of weeks, we took a device from each of these two categories out for a test drive.

In the niche category, the SleepTracker watch does pretty much exactly what you'd expect. The gadget, which will run you about $150, measures your movement during sleep to determine at what points during the night you're getting a decent rest, and at what points you're not.

My first impression of the watch wasn't all that great. Like most wrist-based computers, it's ugly in a bulky sort of way. The digital readout and backlighting is pretty standard for a digital watch. In short, you're not buying this thing for the looks.

The company behind the SleepTracker bills it as a smart alarm. The idea is that you set a time to be woken up (say, 9 a.m.), and a sort of plus/minus window (say, 20 minutes). The watch then wakes you up at whatever point in that window it senses you're not in the middle of a deep sleep cycle. Presumably, because when you're not woken out of the most restful period of sleep, you wake up more refreshed. To be honest, that feature didn't really do much for me, although I guess some people will like it. In reality, there's a much cooler reason to pick up the SleepTracker – it's ability to collect data.

After my first night using the watch, I downloaded the information it collected onto a web-based piece of software provided to SleepTracker users. Within a few seconds, a long bar graph appeared on the screen, showing exactly when I was getting decent rest – which, it turned out, was only 33 per cent of the time. I quickly saw that the single longest period of deep sleep I'd gotten all night was for half an hour, between 4:30 and 5 a.m.

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For all I know, the watch might have been making all this data up. I mean, I was asleep throughout the info-gathering process. And yet there was something intriguing, even oddly empowering about having that data. Presumably, with enough aggregate sleep data, a SleepTracker user can start to figure out exactly what factors affect a good night's rest: eat carbs for dinner, check the results the next day; listen to whale sounds before bed, check the results the next day, etc.

If the SleepTracker is a no-nonsense, single-purpose device, the MOTOACTV from Motorola is an all-round fitness analytics gizmo.

(As an aside, Motorola inexplicably continues to name its products in all-caps. From this point on in the review, I will not).

Roughly the same length and width as an iPod Nano, the Motoactv comes across as a kind of Nike+ for multiple exercises. It lets you quickly generate fitness goals for walking, running, cycling, elliptical or step-machine workouts. You can set time, calorie or distance goals. It's also a pretty good MP3 player, with some great features (the ability to pull playlists straight from your iTunes) and some gimmicky ones (the ability to quickly launch your "fitness song" when you need to get fired up during a workout).

I've been a big fan of Motorola recently. The new Razr was the first phone I liked better than the iPhone, and the Motoactv is a pretty cool device. Where it really shines is post-workout, when it downloads all the data onto Motorola's on-line hub and lets you sort through it. That data includes detailed maps showing exactly where you've just been running/walking/cycling, coupled with charts showing your rate distance/calories burned/pace (I'm pretty sure the calories burned data is, at best, a guestimate). In what has to be a simultaneously awesome and ridiculous feature, the software measures your workout performance against whatever songs were playing during the workout, thus figuring out what tracks get you going the most.

Before you go out and buy one of these things, however, you should know there are a couple of drawbacks to the Motoactv. For one thing, it's expensive, and if you don't end up making good use of the exercise-related features, you're basically paying $250 for an MP3-player (that's the 8-gigabyte version. The 16-gigabyte version will set you back $300). Motorola also has a nasty habit of asking its customers to splurge on myriad accessories. They'll throw in a (hideously ugly) wristwatch band for free when you buy the Motoactv online, but if you want sports headphones, a heart rate monitor, rubber bike mount or armband, you're paying extra. Motorola isn't the only company that does this, but they really should have included at least one more of those accessories with the actual gadget.

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Increasingly, you're going to see a lot more of these types of personal metrics devices pop up on store shelves. The early players in the market (most notably, Nike) have an advantage on the social side, for much the same reason Facebook has an advantage in social networking – people join up because their friends have joined up.

But if you're interested purely in the data-collecting aspect of these things, there's plenty to choose from. Just make sure you know exactly what kind of data you want to collect. Both the SleepTracker and the Motoactv are very good at what they do, but if you don't end up using all the functionality built in to the gadgets, you'll basically have paid a whole lot of money for a wristwatch and an MP3-player.

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