Qualifying the Quantified Self

Sensors Insights by Tom Kevan

Look around, and you'll see people using all manner of sensor-enabled devices to monitor a growing number of facets of their personal lives. Whether it's a simple pedometer or a trendy Fitbit, practioners of the "quantified self" are using devices to measure everything from what they eat and how much they exercise to their emotional state. The goal is to improve how they function in their daily lives.

Despite the fact that the concept of the quantified self was introduced in 2007, the trend is just starting to get its technological teeth. Scientists and technology providers are constantly developing new ways of gaining deeper insight into the physical and mental condition of people. Advances in sensor technology and software enable self-tracking to delve deeper into personal lives to expose more granular details. A quick look at the evolution of one simple technology—microphones—will give you an idea of just how far this trend is going.

Researchers at Cornell University, the University of Virginia, and the University of Washington are using microphones to detect more than audio signals. The Economist article "Teaching Old Microphones New Tricks" tells how this established technology can now interpret signals from the human body and even track a person's posture and gestures.

Tanzeem Choudhury and her research team at Cornell University are developing an Android app called StressSense that uses the smartphone's microphone to capture speech. The software analyzes universal indicators like amplitude and frequency to tell when a person is under stress. The ultimate goal is to refine the app so that it can help you identify situations that trigger stress.

At the University of Virginia, John Stankovic is using microphones, modified with accelerometers, to detect the pulse in the arteries of the ear. Using this information, Stankovic hopes to collect enough information to gauge the wearer's physical state, including heart rate and activity level.

In a third research project at the University of Washington in Seattle, Shwetak Patel has developed a method of using an iPhone's microphone to measure lung function. The app called SpiroSmart uses the acoustic features of the users breath, such as resonance (the effect of air moving through the trachea and past the vocal cords) to measure the volume of air expelled from the person's lungs. With this information, medical professionals can monitor the condition of patients with asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

All this data has the potential to improve the quality of life, but there is a dark side that should not be ignored. Problems arising from oversharing on social networks, the constant threat of hacking, and the well-established record of ad networks tracking browsing activity on the Web provide adequate grounds for concern over what might happen if all this personal data falls into the wrong hands. The potential of misuse for profit demands a balanced approach and effective security, suggesting that the quantified self should be qualified.

Tom Kevan is a New Hampshire-based freelance writer specializing in technology.

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