Exercise trackers and digital workout plans. Automated, healthy delivery subscription services. Heart-rate monitoring wearables. Virtual therapy. Tech-first spinning bikes. DNA and biomarker testing.
The wellness technology trend isn’t going anywhere, and for good reason.
Fitness and mind-body exercise is a $390 billion market; healthy eating, nutrition, and weight loss is valued at $277 billion; and fitness and wearable technology is a $82 billion market.
While our lifespans are increasing, our healthspans have not kept up (on average, we live up to 20% of our lives unhealthy), resulting in deteriorating mental and physical health (Alzheimers, dementia, lack of mobility, etc.). People are realizing that it’s not what we do every now and then that counts, but rather what becomes a habit, a way of life, and a proactive lifestyle that makes the difference.
And let’s get real. It feels good to feel good. Having the energy to do fun activities with friends and family is priceless, having the brain health to learn new things is essential, and feeling good in one’s own body never gets old. Some people even view wellness as a status symbol. They prioritize maintaining their well-balanced, physical and mental health, and people notice.
Whatever your reasons, the key to wellness is being able to stay focused for the long haul on lifestyle choices that optimize our health. So how do we do this?
Technology has helped pave the way for enhanced wellness in many areas, and the movement shows no signs of slowing down. One technology that’s gaining speed across industries is augmented reality (AR), which is poised to make a big impact in the wellness space too. In this article, I’ll highlight three ways AR is poised to help optimize our health and wellbeing in the not-so-distant future — making adopting a wellness lifestyle more convenient, easier to maintain consistency and accuracy and helping make it more enjoyable whether you’re a health nut or hate the idea of healthy living.
But First, an Augmented Reality Primer
AR has gained awareness in recent years, so feel free to skip this section if you’re already “in the know.” If you’d like a refresher, this is for you! There’s a reason Apple’s CEO has a thing for augmented reality.
“I regard it as a big idea, like the smartphone. The smartphone is for everyone, we don’t have to think the iPhone is about a certain demographic, or country or vertical market: it’s for everyone. I think AR is that big, it’s huge. I get excited because of the things that could be done that could improve a lot of lives. And be entertaining.” — Tim Cook
AR overlays virtual 3D objects or computer-generated information over the real world to create a sense that they’re in front of you. So, the picture you see with your eyes (through a smartphone, tablet, glasses, etc.) is a composite of what is really around you and what the app, game, or experience adds to it. Pokémon GO, Snapchat and Instagram filters, and many new apps you may have seen like this, this, this, and this, are all AR. While we’re still in the early stages of AR, things will become more interesting when the technology moves beyond our smartphones and onto our eyes via some sort of [fashion forward] glasses. AR will help enhance our health and wellness in a way that hasn’t previously been possible. With big industry players like Microsoft Hololens and Google Glass being enterprise-focused, we have some time before AR glasses become the norm for consumers. Michael Abrash, the Chief Scientist of Facebook-owned Oculus Research, which is hard at work on both virtual reality headsets and augmented reality glasses, says we’re at least five years away from that happening. But here’s a sneak peek of what we have to look forward to. These are three ways AR is poised to make an impact on wellness in people’s everyday lives.
Track Food Intake Consistently and Accurately
Research studies show time and again that when we track our food, exercise, and other lifestyle factors, we improve our wellness quotient. That probably comes as no surprise if you’ve done photo food logging through an app like Healthie or entered your meals meticulously into MyFitnessPal. Having that information on your smartphone gives you perspective and makes you more aware of your intake, but it’s easy to forget to log your food or just not feel like doing it. If you don’t have the support of a health coach, dietitian, trainer, etc. checking in on you, it’s easy to lose focus. And again, focus and consistency are key to lasting change (amiright?).
Now imagine though, if a [fashion-forward] pair of glasses could detect what you have on your plate. Instead of logging every single item and portion, whether that’s a stir fry, apple slices or pizza, the technology could detect what you’re eating and how much of it. As you eat, the portion change is monitored. This technology that “sees” — detects, labels, and analyzes objects — is technically computer vision and deep learning, but it’s very closely related to AR and is a major component in the advancement of useful AR applications. While computer vision and AR aren’t the same thing, AR applications rely on the technology to interpret what’s in view. Wellness apps like Lose It are already experimenting with computer vision to help users log food.
This will become more useful, though, when computer vision and deep learning are paired with AR to then display that information (how many calories you’re about to eat, what nutrients are included, etc.) in context. Imagine the micronutrient profile hovering over your plate without having to search through an online database on your smartphone, or superimposing an accurately proportioned 3-oz piece of salmon next to your (ahem) slightly larger portion.
The combination of these technologies becomes useful for individuals with reduced eyesight and memory loss as well. With the help of computer vision, people can “see” if they are in fact about to take the right medication with an AR notification such as a large arrow highlighting which bottle to pick up. Instead of having to research and log your food, supplements, or medication manually, computer vision and augmented reality could remove the friction and make it easier to keep track of what you’re putting in your body.
Conveniently View and Interpret What’s Going on In our Bodies and Surroundings
Many wellness apps already provide users with biometric readings, connected to sensors and wearables. Apple’s Health app and FitBit’s wearables track steps and flights climbed, devices like Spire monitor breathing patterns, and others like Muse detect brainwave activity. Now, take it a step further. Imagine having a real-time display of this information (through AR glasses). How many steps you’ve taken throughout the day. How many calories you’ve burned. How much time has passed since you got up and stretched. Or even what the air quality is like around you. Granted, if all of this was in your field-of-view at one time it would probably be overwhelming and look like this:
But, selectively used and carefully positioned, these displays will be a game changer. Seeing your goals and having this information in your real-world environment creates the potential for significant advances in wellness. A goal of burning an extra 400 calories becomes gamified (and dare I say fun?) when you see an overlay illustrating how much closer a flight of stairs in front of you will get you to your goal. Seeing a visually appear to help you control your breathing as your heart rate climbs during an anxiety attack will help you calm your nervous system (thereby preventing cortisol spikes, adrenal gland issues, etc.). In this concept video, Augmented Reality Exercise shows how integrating AR into fitness routines can keep a person engaged and motivated.
Notifications and reminders on your smartphone or watch are one thing, but actually having the displays in your field of view, in context, will help create a seamlessly integrated force of motivation into our daily lives.
Have Fun and Stay Focused
So far I’ve mainly discussed data and text being displayed in AR. The true power of AR, though, will come from augmenting our surroundings in a way that visually engages, inspires, and motivates us according to our unique preferences throughout the day. While still an enterprise edition, Microsoft Hololens has given us a sneak peak of the possibilities of augmenting our realities with useful information. Imagine “placing” motivational messages, reminders, and images around your home without needing to physically change anything. One of the first AR apps I downloaded several years ago was of Mel B from the Spice Girls (yes, really). The app allowed me to view her dancing in my living room or wherever I was at the moment. Imagine if you had your favorite athlete, trainer, dancer, or motivational figure right in front of you. While video detaches you from the subject, AR has the power to create a sense of connection and more realistic experience as if you’re in the same space.
Apps like Freeletics and Sworkit have made fitness classes mobile, letting us take our trainers with us via our smartphones. But following along by looking at your phone’s tiny screen while trying to do the move isn’t easy or productive. You may find yourself spending half the workout looking at the screen on a bench rather than doing the moves. Taking a yoga class would be as simple as putting on your [fashion forward] glasses and looking straight ahead to follow an instructor as if you were in a real-life class. Running with AR would allow you to have someone (or many people) running alongside you, to give you a sense of competition and motivation. Or, if you need a little bit more of a nudge, maybe zombies will do the trick!
The Challenges and When is this Actually Happening?
I hope I’ve shed some light on how AR can make an impact in the wellness space and turn “healthy living” into just…well, living. Despite the examples, I’ve shared and the progress being made, AR technology has a long way to go before becoming ubiquitous. You may also remember Google Glass (from the video above), which became briefly yet widely known between 2013 and 2015. In addition to the widespread awareness, the term “glassholes” also appeared. Google Glass, at a $1,500 price point, was an exclusive piece of hardware that Google created for what they coined “Google Explorers.” Google sold six-figures-worth of Glass units before the program was temporarily shut down. The program recently began running again as an enterprise edition.
We need to be careful not to repeat this misstep of the “glasshole” mentality. The hardware must be created in a way that’s accepted more widely. Snap has been successful so far, creating their first consumer version of their glasses, Spectacles. While they don’t incorporate AR yet, they do allow people to record video in their field of view, which displays a light so people are aware you’re filming. Snap though did not have a $1,500 price point, so Spectacles have been a much more mainstream, trendy piece of hardware, especially with the younger crowd. Another challenge is being conscious of not replacing body awareness and intuition with technology. So, still having a sense of what your body needs, how thirsty you are, how much you’ve eaten, or if you feel sluggish and need to get some exercise. Relying solely on technology to motivate you or to tell you what you need to eat and when seems dangerous.
Instead, I envision us using AR to enhance what we already innately know and what we’re capable of. Making it easier to do things that we know will expand our lifespans and our healthspans. If we do this, AR and wellness will have a wonderful future together.
Angela Singer is passionate about educating people on technology that creates seamless workflows in everyday life. She recently joined Mindfully Augmented as a Business & Marketing Advisor. Angela was previously the Director of Product Marketing at Augment, an augmented reality platform for product visualization. She’s currently a Technology Evangelist at Healthie, helping wellness professionals grow their businesses and drive client results through tech solutions. You can also hear Angela online as a speaker and voice-over talent for tech-focused podcasts, videos, and webinars. Follow Angela on Twitter & Linkedin