Monday, September 19, 2005

Consumer Apps for Real-Time Biofeedback

Look for some interesting companies and products to come from the commodization of technologies related to real-time biofeedback. Let’s illustrate with an example.

Yale Professor Robert Grober has developed a device that lets you hear your golf swing. Ingredients: an instrumented golf club, with sensors that wirelessly transmit data to a receiver, which in turn converts the golf club’s telemetry data into an audio soundscape. Different swing parameters contribute to the soundscape, allowing the golfer to “visualize”—through sound—his/her swing as it happens.

The “as it happens” part is critical, because the core skill in golf is developing muscle memory to swing and putt correctly, consistently. Getting the feedback of what you’re doing while you’re doing it is much better than, say, reviewing a video of your swing.

Grober’s company, Sonic Golf, has a Web site, which explains why this product is becoming real now:

Sonic Golf products are enabled by the convergence of four technologies, each one of which is driven by an existing industrial base: 1) silicon based sensors, including MEMs accelerometers (automotive industry) and gyroscopes; 2) low power hand held electronics, including micro-power microprocessors and micro-power A/D converters (PDA and cell phone industry); 3) digital music synthesis (sound cards, computer multimedia/gaming applications); and 4) the IEEE 802.15.4 communications protocol (Zigbee) for extremely low power (mW), relatively low bandwidth (100s kB/sec) wireless communications.

In other words, the key enabling technologies are available off-the-shelf, at reasonable cost. Besides the obvious variations on Sonic Golf for other sports, how else might these technologies be applied?

Let’s start with a system for improving posture. If you are unaware of this market, a Froogle search for “posture” yields 19,000 listings for product prices at retailers. As with a golf swing, learning to sit and stand correctly is well-suited to biofeedback using real-time sound. However, the market is no longer just golfers; it’s everybody. (Cue ominous voiceover: “Bad posture not only affects how others perceive you. It hurts your health.”)

What about a smart chef’s knife, which uses sound to tune the user’s skills at slicing, dicing, chopping, mincing, and such? How about a bicycle that teaches kids to ride it?

If we assume that component costs drop so low that almost anything can be “sonified,” what happens? Smart chopsticks, anyone?


  1. How would sound biofeedback, like the Sonic System, benefit people who want to improve their posture?

  2. Bruce,
    Similar to how the sonic golf club has sensors to detect its position and velocity, a company could create wearable, wireless sensors to monitor posture parameters such as uprightness, shoulder alignment, and so on.
    A little computer (or perhaps the person's Bluetooth phone) could run a small application that constantly compares the person's posture parameters from the sensors with stored parameters that represent the range of acceptable posture for that person. The stored parameters would come from set-up of the system, when the person would go through a series of movements that defined his/her correct posture.