Electronics Ecosystems

I should have been at the Outdoor Retailer show last week. Those are my people. Instead I went to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

We have an electronics editor at Slowtwitch, and I'm not it. Our propellerhead is Tony Vienneau and I was honestly embarrassed even to ask the CES folks for a media credential. I felt like a bad credit risk applying for a stated-income, no-doc mortgage. I can't believe they're loaning me the money.

I can't believe they gave me a press pass. But they did, so I went, and drove the same highway as Hunter Thompson, but on coffee not mescaline and no Caddy convertible.

It takes 7 Interbikes to make 1 CES as measured in attendance; it requires 3 convention centers; and I spent all my time at one of them so I never got to see Pioneer, GoPro, or Garmin, all of which were across town. But I believe my time was well spent.

Tony is better equipped to write in-depth product reviews and he will, but I did form some opinions. Mostly what I thought about were ecosystems and what I will write over the next several days are stories about ecosystems, and things that could be. This is the first.

Can you indulge my way of understanding one microelectronic ecosystem? Here are three siloes: metric senders; metric accumulators; and data interpreters. What is a metric sender? A heart rate chest strap. A power meter. A cadence sensor. The obvious metric accumulator is a bicycle head unit. This product will also generate its own metrics, often using a GPS, but it's job is also to display all the metrics real time – not just those it generates – and to prepare the session for export to a data interpreter. This third silo could be your training log.

You could – and we will later this week – categorize these in another way: How would you like your real-time data stream delivered to you? Head unit on your bike? Watch on your wrist? Heads–up display, like a Recon Jet? Audio? I know what you're thinking. Audio means music. No. Later this week I'll sketch one possible future, the thesis being that audio could be the most feature-rich, versatile, real-time data feed of them all.

For today, look at the image above. This product from Qardio is not out yet. It's awaiting FDA approval, is expected to come to market in the Summer of 2016, at a price in the high $400s. It's a data sender. It's quite lightweight. As you can see, it's a chest-strap device but honestly, nowadays, chest strap devices should deliver more than just heart rate and this one does (there are less cumbersome ways to measure heart rate). This multiple-lead QardioCore device delivers an EKG. Real time. As you're training. Along with a number of other biometrics. Let's set this aside for a moment.

The next image is a proof-of-concept device that measures the light absorption of water in your system. It purports to determine hyper- or dehydration, and the detection (one assumes) of hyponatremia or its symptoms. Its method is light emitters and sensors and later in the week I'll introduce you to a multi-time Ironman athlete who makes very tiny circuit boards with light sensors and accelerometers, and these are used to measure a ton of biometrics.

I'd like you to look forward with me. Imagine that the data accumulator – your Recon Jet, your Garmin 920 – accepts as payload the EKG produced during your training session. It may not be viewable to your coach, but the file is there. Software already available for cardiologists who rely on a 24- or 48-hour Holter to measure your heart's behavior search and identify moments of concern, such as arrhythmias.

Imagine a cardiologist peering into 3 months worth of WKO files, and noting – remember the second device above – that incidences of atrial fibrillation seem to track with moments of dehydration. Or, they occur whenever you're training when it's quite hot outside. Or when at the back end of 2-a-day workouts. Or in high heart rate sessions undertaken in the 5 weeks following an Ironman.

Some of you will reply that no cardiologist is going to look at your work files. As soon as I got back from CES I shot an email off to Dr. Larry Creswell, whom many Slowtwitchers know of. He's an eminent cardiologist and chairs USA Triathlon panels on heart-related investigations. “Do I see the future,” I asked him, “or am I pissing up a rope here?”

“There's little doubt in my mind that you're seeing the future,” he replied. “I wouldn't be surprised if the pictured device is very much like a Holter. As you mention, analysis software automates the interpretation; doctors today don't look at the raw data. Software is designed to filter out the noise and focus on the adequate quality electrograms.”

“I would think that you correctly envision the uses,” Dr. Creswell continued. “Just as coaching is done from afar, additional data that you describe will be available for offsite review. I would think that real-time monitoring might be possible in addition to whatever after-the-fact review. And finally, I wouldn't doubt that there could be workable business models where such services are provided to coaching clients.”

I am fascinated by the confluence of medical and sports devices and methods. There is a reticence on behalf of sports device makers to delve into anything in the same area code as medical, because of regulation and liability. But the reverse – medical companies morphing into sports device makers – this is the pathway. Then it's up to the makers of metrics aggregators whether they'll agree to accept the data, build the APIs. (As an aside, all the medical device makers to whom I spoke use Bluetooth Low Energy; they barely know what ANT+ is.)

We now have devices in miniature that directly or indirectly generate and transmit a metric for heart rate, heart rate variability, EKG, ventilation, blood lactate, hemoglobin, oxygen saturation, hydration, bike power, run power. Our exercise physiologists will determine which of these metrics are useful. Our data aggregators and crunchers (e.g., Training Peaks) will make fields for relevant metrics.

One thing struck me: To the device makers at the CES show, I asked have you spoken to Garmin, Recon, Kuai, Suunto, Polar, anybody that makes a head unit or other form of data aggregator? The typical answer was no. Have you spoken to Training Peaks? No. I did not get the sense those showing unique and marvelous products at CES thought in terms of ecosystems, except in terms of their own ecosystems (click on the Qardio link above).

About the hydration sensor above, the Nobo B60, which is worn as a calf sleeve, I note that BSX Insight is a maker of bloodless blood lactate analyzer, also using a calf sleeve. Can we manufacture one calf sleeve that captures multiple metrics?

In fact, if they all use light emitters, measuring the light absorbed and returned from oxygen, hemoglobin, water, etc., can optical signals measure more than one metric? At a minimum, can one device (arm or calf band, ear bud) carry multiple sensors (the coach and the training protocol chooses and uses the preferred metrics)? Can we feed mayonnaise to the tuna?!

Let's talk about an entirely different ecosystem tomorrow.