Interview with Brian Russell about Wearable Sensors

Brian Russell is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Zephyr Technologies, a biotechnological company that specializes in remote monitoring and mobile health (mHealth) products. Zephyr Technologies is an industry leader in health monitoring solutions and has been supplying advanced monitoring technology to groups such as the National Football League, US Special Forces, National Guard Civil Support Teams, and the NASA Ames Research Center (to name a few) for nearly a decade. Zephyr also has a proven track record of helping athletes measure, track and subsequently enhance their performance and endurance.

Here are my 5 questions with Brian and his answers:

1) Science has come a long way regarding the ability to tailor performance enhancing regimes against one’s biological markers. Where is science now with regards to tailoring performance enhancing regimes as it pertains to immediate biological feedback (allowing users to make adjustments in real-time)?

So previously accuracy was the problem, which has been solved for the most part now. Now companies like our own are looking at specific problems and doing a complete integration of the solution. Smart phones have really moved us forward in that regard, and biometric devices are also getting a lot more wearable. The overall experience can now be a very natural, entertaining experience that is also helping you improve performance. Furthermore, the devices are more user-friendly today so the education load needed to get going on a device has almost gone to zero, plus the experience is becoming more social.

The fact that we can now accurately measure somebody in either a shirt, patch or strap, and give them information in real time on devices they are familiar with is incredible. Plus, you have devices like Motorola’s MOTOACTV that can alter your environment based on your performance. In the case of MOTOACTV it is the music you hear, but that is just the tip of the iceberg.

Devices are now letting people close the loop on their goals too. Up until recently one could argue biometric devices were really just arming people with data, which is great. However, now a user can say, “what’s my goal?” and can use these devices to make better choices. It used to be that the primary success metric for most was race day. That is nonsensical and not appropriate for the masses. With something like our new product ZephyrLIFE you can assess your stress level and/or fitness level and manipulate your activity against real-time feedback. So again, we can now close the loop for the user. We start the goal at the top, then we add a stimulus and track the performance of that stimulus (which is what the industry has been doing for years), but now we also are adding the element of immediate feedback whether it is suggested tweaks to behavior or a change in the users environment such as the example with MOTOACTV.

Also, the software is getting better. VO2 Max use to be the big thing but a big part of that marker is genetic. Your anaerobic threshold can now be determined with a high degree of accuracy through consumer biometric devices. Using good software we can create custom workout regimens tailored to the user based on training zones, which is nothing new, but it doesn’t end there… these protocols use to only be prescriptive, now the software is adaptable so you can challenge your program’s recommendations and change up the workout to see if you get better results. If you do, the software starts to learn this and continues to optimize a workout for you that gets you results as quickly as possible. The days of using normative data to calibrate these initiatives will soon be a thing of the past and that’s terrific and is leading to a super cool user experience.

2) With the advances in sport biometric devices, do you think that there might be some interesting synergies with the expanding consumer biofeedback market?

That’s a great question actually. If you look at the latest research regarding all the 10,000 step programs, they are failing in a lot of areas because we are learning through study that exercise intensity is an important part of the equation for reducing stress. So for the sake of improving our nation’s health, I am hoping people will move on from just these counting step type programs. Accelerometers are neat, they are very cheap and simple, but they don’t address using muscle or heart rate activity. You lose visibility regarding heart rate and stress and therefore nothing about the user’s mental state is captured.

If you are healthy and you introduce some sort of stress, great. However, if you are unhealthy then maybe adding a high level of stress into your life is not a good idea. This is where advances, such as the ones we are driving, are really adding value for consumers. We are enabling people to make healthy choices about their activity, so we are a perfect example of something that started with sport and now is really improving the lives of a broader audience. For instance, hypertension is one of the top three killers in the country at the moment so we can also use devices in conjunction with behavioral psychology and motivate people to take action using their own data. And here is the magic: we know exercise metabolizes stress hormones so sport, exercise, fitness, whatever you want to call it is not just for athletes. It is proven to improve overall well-being. And it goes both ways, products that are being designed for consumers regarding sleep and stress will help athletes perform better too.

Also, most people now agree exercise is medicine. The medical bill for this country is almost up to 25 percent of GDP, which is significantly higher than any of the other G6 countries. We know that exercise reduces diabetes when introduced to an at risk population. And it is not like these people need to become Ironmen, simple changes at the right intensity have huge results and so with regards to your question there is a significant benefit in the two sides influencing each other. If we agree exercise is medicine then these devices give us visibility and tools across the health continuum. They help focus people on staying well instead of the alternative, which is medical intervention. As a society we are only accustomed to worrying about health when we are sick. The departure for this flawed system is exciting!

3) For someone just starting to track athletic performance through data, what do you believe should be focused on first (regarding this new information) to make the biggest personal impact?

Let’s start with someone who used to be active but because of various life events adopted a sedentary lifestyle and now is motivated to get back in shape. For the sake of this example let’s say the person in question has chosen to run as the way to get fit. First off, for the majority of the population one shouldn’t jump into a standard training regimen (ex. some 5 day a week program). So I would suggest to this person, for a couple of weeks choose to run one or two times during the week, for no more than 20 minutes. In these training sessions focus not on the effort but running “well”, good form, steady biometrics, etc. In layman terms, run in a way your body really likes… feel your feet, feel your heels, feel your knees, make sure your muscles, your glutes, your thighs, are doing what they should do. So that is the first thing I suggest.

Number two is looking at your sleep. Sleep hygiene is so underrated when it comes to performance. So track your sleep and do what it takes to improve in this area. Figure out what works best for you, whether that is lowering your caffeine consumption or not watching television in your bedroom, do whatever it takes to get restful sleep and start doing it every night.

Three is about creating a closed loop system with your device of choice based on personalized goals. So whether someone is motivated by performance, or reducing stress, we calibrate the routine to optimizing against that goal which keeps the person engaged and then this positive cycle feeds itself.

And the last pieces are the workout and proper recovery, so I personally believe that workouts should be spaced out at least 48 hours apart from each other. If you workout smart and give yourself enough time to recover from your workouts most people will see measurable improvement in their wellness within four weeks.

Once we’ve accomplished getting you fit then we can talk about more advance tactics like gamification, social sharing, and competition to see if any of these initiatives are in line with your personality… helping you move the needle even more.

4) I asked Gear Fisher this same question, and I would be interested to hear your answer: where do you think the balance between a platform’s utility and ability to be user friendly lie? Dealing with the unfortunate reality that in the world of fitness that positive outcomes are for the most part reliant on user compliance, is it sometimes necessary to compromise sophistication for usability?

We have some fundamental beliefs here at Zephyr. If you can present people’s data to them in an easy to understand way… they will get it, they’ll see the picture. Once they get it, the experience will be entertaining which assists one in making positive changes easier. The story I love to tell is the time I had a bioharness on my young daughter and I caught her playing with her breath so that she could see how it affected her ECG on our family’s computer monitor. I didn’t provoke her or encourage her… good devices when designed right foster this type of self discovery.

We use a ZephyrLife Score to give users an easy biometric gauge if that is something that works for them, other products have similar functionality. With a well designed product if you want to go deeper you have the ability to do that easily as well, it is about usability. Something like the ZephyrLife Score also lets people compare themselves against other groups whether that is other members of the same sex in their age group, their friends, or their cohorts at work is up to the way the campaign is set up. Regardless, of the specific set up it is all about letting people self educate in a way that is meaningful and specific to their goals and style of achieving goals. Technology should never smack someone in the forehead; usability is paramount.

5) Looking out at the landscape of mHealth and wearable devices with regards to biometric tracking, what do you think is going to be the next industry game changer?

I think it is three things, two are current and one is up and coming. The first, which is now, is that the option for insertion of biometric sensors in wearable items is plentiful. You can put them is a compression shirt, you can put them in a watch, people now have choices about what to wear and how to wear them, so that is happening now. There are even disposable devices entering the market for certain applications, so choice – moving beyond just a chest strap – that is exciting!

Second, accuracy is now a requirement. We are getting medical grade data now, so with the right algorithms you can get home from a workout and an alert is waiting for you that says, “This is not a diagnosis but your heart rate data suggests you might benefit from seeing a cardiologist,” and as such you are able to save lives with simply your own data. How cool is that?

The third thing is the way we will soon be handling the data. Frictionless sharing – using things like cellular transmitters – getting the biometric data to the Cloud will involve no effort on the user’s part… this is also very exciting. The data is there when the user is ready for it but it is always being collected. We are removing all of the hassle factors for the user, which will lead to better adoption and ultimately help this country get back on its feet again regarding their health.