Apple’s Health Monitoring Could Put it on a Collision Course With the Food Industry

| Analysis

There is objective truth in the form of human body chemistry. Then, there is the lure of advertised food. Apple's apparent move into personal health and fitness could put the two on a collision course.

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Watching the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia reminded me that athletes are, generally, on a very strict diet. From watching those background color stories, one can often get a glimpse of the rigorous training and diets of the athletes.

As I recall, coaches monitor the athlete's intake in dietary Calories, and the partition of fat, carbohydrates and protein. A specific kind of prolonged training regimen will require special attention to these details. The point is that the athlete can't afford to eat as he or she pleases, and the optimum performance can be achieved by proper diet, especially as the athlete gets into better and better shape and dietary needs slowly change.

Apple appears, from the kinds of people we've been hearing about that are getting hired, to be working on the health and fitness aspects of wearable computing devices. How could this evolve? At first, this is likely to be external monitoring: pulse, respiration, temperature, sleep cycles, and so on. Eventually, however, it's foreseeable that the technology will extend to the monitoring of blood chemistry with, perhaps, small wireless devices implanted in the bloodstream.

That's when all hell will break loose.

The Advertising of Food

You may or may not pay much attention to TV ads, especially in the evening. My own observation is that there is an overdose of food ads on evening broadcast and cable TV: pizza, sandwiches, sweets, soft drinks, various kinds of snack foods and so on.

Anyone who is on a strict diet or is fasting in preparation for a medical procedure knows that these ads, dripping with gooeyness, melting cheese, bubbling bacon, and so on will drive you right to the refrigerator in a mouth-watered frenzy.

Normally, unlike Olympic athletes, we don't pay much attention to the immediate effects on our body chemistry as a result of being manipulated by these ads. (It's especially insidious for children.) Maybe we get indigestion. We certainly gain too much weight. The long term effects can lead to diabetes and other maladies. But moments after ingestion, the satisfaction of eating is so great that we seldom have any technical insight into the immediate effects on our health.

Red Alert!

A quantitative readout of our blood chemistry, especially if it's displayed in our visual field with something like Google Glass or an optic nerve stimulation — or something as mundane as an iWatch with all kinds of alerts would become a specific and hard-to-ignore, matter of-fact-readout that would potentially raise all kinds of alarms.

User interfaces to personal health could be the next revolution.

A million iOS apps have become quite adept at displaying important information on a small screen. Imagine what would happen if, after a bacon cheeseburger and fries, the iWatch (for the sake of argument) starts to go into visual and audio gyrations like a pinball machine.

Glucose is off the scale!  Your cholesterol level has gone into the danger zone! Sodium level is spiking!

In time, such a detailed monitoring of our health, in direct response to the food we eat, might well become as fine-tuned as that of the olympic athletes. With ample biofeedback, some users will naturally steer away from bad foods while others, as we might surmise, will become fanatic in their attempts to eek out the maximum benefits. It's possible that sharing, social media, perhaps a bit of competitiveness, and a fitness rampage will combine to form a new level of health consciousness and social one-upmanship.

All this could have a significant impact on the advertising of foods that use visual allure, texture, fats and sugars to entice us. The food industry may elect to fight back, ignore the whole thing, lobby the government for protections, or possibly even embrace the fitness craze brought on by the advent of wearable computing devices.

If good things happen, this could be the next major revolution in personal computing. It could also be the next phase of human evolution.

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Skaters and teaser image via Shutterstock.

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Comments

domsin

I can see it now: Soft drink company CEOs lining up in front of a Congressional hearing, under oath, swearing they did not know that high levels of sugar in their products were unhealthy.

geoduck

Nobody wants to be nagged about their eating. We didn’t like it when our mothers did it. We don’t like it when our wives do it. We don’t like it. If that’s what the iWatch is primarily for it will be a flop on the scale of NewCoke.

I just don’t see more than a tiny fraction of the population that would want to monitor their health statistics continuously, all day, every day. Hell, I’m going through chemo right now and I don’t get my blood checked more than once every couple of weeks and I only do my BP every couple of days. Apple doesn’t make products for vanishingly small niche markets. The iWatch better do a lot more than health monitoring, heck more than what’s rumoured or it will be remembered along with the puck mouse and Pippen as one of Apples grand failures.

Gareth Harris

suggested product name: iNag

but yes I do monitor some vitals

d'monder

There’s a saying: when a salad is $7 and a cheeseburger is 99 cents, what do you think people are going to eat? smile

Seriously, we all could stand to watch our health a little better.  But it should be an option, not something imposed.

brett_x

geoduck. I respect your opinions, and I think you’re right about it being a niche market, but I do suspect Apple has a bigger vision than what is talked about here.
That aside, you called out 2 failed products that have conspiracy theories that I subscribe to (I normally don’t, but these make a lot of sense to me) so I have to call them out. smile

1) NewCoke. It was supposed to be a failure so that CocaCola could come back with “Classic” which was sweetened by High Fructose Corn Syrup rather than the sugar. The break between old coke to Coke Classic gave them the opportunity to do the switch. I don’t follow that company all that much, but it certainly makes sense. It could have just been their back up plan though.. hoping that NewCoke would catch on.

2) The other one, though.. I follow that company.  Apple’s puck mouse. It was, in fact, the WORST mouse ever made. The theory: It was 1998. The iMac was not only the first home computer to have no floppy drive, it was also the first to have “Universal Serial Bus” (aka USB) as the only input device ports. Apple was still a failing company at the time. They needed all the interest they could get. If, on one hand, they made the best USB mouse and keyboard and gave it away with their new line of computers, customers would be happy to keep them. End of story. But if, on the other hand, they bundled their new computer with a marginally good or even poor keyboard and mouse, AND their new computer attracted a lot of attention and sold millions in the first year.. there would be a whole new market of people that wanted good usb input devices. And that would entice device companies to write drivers for Mac OS for their existing USB devices, and even push them to make Mac specific devices. More interest in Apple was the real goal.

I subscribe to this theory for 3 reasons.
One: Because I stood in line on August 15, 1998 to buy a bondi blue iMac. I also distinctly remember looking for USB input devices that would work with it, and there were virtually none at first. (For the record, I ended up with an Adesso keyboard and MacAlly trackball.)
Two: It was such a bad design, but even when Apple “re-designed” it, they only put a dimple in the single click button to make it just barely better. That design lasted for years.
Three: because even if it wasn’t a conspiracy, it worked out. How many multi-colored USB input devices did you see on the market in the next few years? Now think if Apple gave you the perfect keyboard and mouse? How many would there have been? Now think of how much shelf space and collective head space those devices took up.

Am I selling this theory yet? Okay, I don’t work in sales. But it’s fun to think about even if it’s not all true.

Hagen

“Thank you for downloading the MightyBurger promotional app! Would you like to disable health warnings now?”

skipaq

I think geoduck has it right. Athletes have professional motives that most people don’t have. Most people don’t even practice moderation in their nutritional habits. The idea that people who are not motivated to better diets when looking in a mirror are going to change due to some tech health warning is hard to believe. Family members who work in health care tell me that people don’t change when their doctors tell them to stop wasting his/her time if they won’t listen to his/her dietary warnings.

ibuck

We don’t know what an iWatch will do. But I’m thinking Maps / GPS (especially while walking or riding public conveyances) is essential, along with weather,  alert/message reading, and possibly Siri.

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