Amazon has just unveiled Halo, a fitness and health service that’s unlike anything else on the market. When Amazon Halo execs briefed me on it yesterday, they warned me there was a lot of ground to cover. Boy, they weren’t kidding. There’s a wearable, a unique way of measuring body fat, a mesmerizingly different approach to assessing your stress levels through your voice and lots more. Here we go…
First, the wearable
The Amazon Halo Band is a small, screen-free, wrist-worn doohickey, which is light and unobtrusive. You put it on and forget about it, wearing it 24 hours a day so it can monitor sleep as well as waking hours. The lack of a screen or any notifications, which will frustrate some and excite others, is because it’s there to focus on health and wellness, not to disturb you.
Sensors on board include an accelerometer, temperature sensor, heart-rate monitor and two microphones. There’s a button which lets you turn the microphones off at any time and an LED indicator confirms it’s off.
The Halo Band will track your steps, of course, but recognizes the importance of intensity and duration as well, so running earns more points than walking. It uses an activity points system which also deducts points for being sedentary.
Sleep tracking measures time asleep and awake, along with spotting whether you’re in deep, light or REM sleep. It also uses the temperature sensor to monitor your skin temperature while you’re sleeping, all of which contributes to a sleep score that’s awarded each morning on the companion app. It also shows a graph of any deviation from your baseline sleep temperature.
The battery lasts up to seven days and recharges in 90 minutes. It’s water-resistant, so you can swim with it on, for instance. It comes with a lightweight fabric band, though other options, such as silicone sport accessory bands are available in lots of colors. The Halo Band, which sells for $99.99, though reduced for early birds to $64.99. This includes six months of membership to Halo, which afterwards costs $3.99 a month or, as Amazon says, the cost of a coffee a month.
The Amazon Halo app
The companion smartphone app, available on Android and iOS, contains a suite of health tools. So, why is it different?
It’s because along with the regular stuff, like tracking steps and sleep, it does a lot of other stuff that’s little short of remarkable, if it lives up to Amazon’s declarations.
It has ground-breaking ways of measuring your weight, using body fat content as the main metric, which we’ll come back to in a moment. It has something called Labs which has workouts, challenges and more to encourage healthier habits, in collaboration with Headspace, Harvard Health Publishing, the Mayo Clinic, the American Heart Association and others.
But the real humdinger, the jaw-dropping, hard-to-get-your-head-around-it’s-so-different element is what Amazon calls Tone.
Why Tone is a game-changer
Tone is about social and emotional well-being, Amazon says. Your voice reveals a lot about you, it seems and Tone is about listening to your voice and using machine learning to analyze how you sound. This voice element is the main reason I call the service jaw-dropping, by the way. It can assess how stressed you sound, for instance, or how happy and relaxed.
If you create a voice profile and turn on the microphones on the Halo Band, it listens passively in the background, sampling speech samples every 10 minutes or so, to work out your state of mind. Of course, you can turn the microphones off any time you like, just by long-pressing the button on the band.
But there’s also something called Live Mode which features in the smartphone companion app. With this, you can analyze your own tone in real-time, and it will give you feedback on how you’re sounding. This is not only fascinating but downright useful if, say, you’re practicing a presentation or preparing a wedding speech. At launch, it works in U.S. English only (which is annoying for a Brit like me) and it works best with native English speakers.
In terms of privacy, Amazon stresses that the analysis is done on-device, it’s not sent to the cloud.
What about Body?
Amazon thinks there’s a better way of judging body health than weight and BMI. Both are valid but may not be informative enough – BMI can’t distinguish between muscle and fat, for instance. Halo is all about body fat percentage (BFP) and measures it in a completely new, unique way.
You just need your smartphone and a bit of privacy. You need between 4 feet and 6 feet of space between you and your phone, ideally with uniform lighting from the front. You need to be wearing minimal, tight clothing – Amazon recommends boxers or briefs for men and a sports bra and bike shorts for women – and the Halo app shows you how to stand while it takes four scan images.
It then analyzes these with what Amazon calls pixel-level accuracy, and combines them into a 3D body model. The neural network is uses has been trained by looking at hundreds of thousands of body images. In other words, this assesses your BFP because it knows what to look for.
There’s also one more feature which is exciting or alarming, depending on your point of view. That’s the body model slider. Adjust this and it shows you what your body would look like if your BFP were higher or lower.
The body images are processed in the cloud but, Amazon stresses, as soon as the processing is done, they are automatically deleted from the cloud, remaining only on your phone. You can opt to store these images in the Amazon cloud if you want to, to get a better idea of before-and-after progress.
Amazon recommends taking a body scan every couple of weeks, though that’s up to you. The company says it trialed the Body feature with WW (formerly Weight Watchers) members and over 80% said it was a useful or motivational tool.
And there’s more
I’m only scratching the surface of some of the things Halo membership promises. Labs includes ways of checking your habits, to see if that afternoon coffee hurts your sleep or if a particular kind of workout is more effective for you than another. Halo is integrated into Cerner solutions so the information can be shared into electronic health records. Although it’s Halo members who have the most features, basics such as steps, sleep time and heart rate are accessible for non-members. But that’s to miss out on some of the most striking features.
When does it arrive?
In the U.S., customers can request early access to Amazon Halo from today, with that special price of $64.99 for the Halo Band and six months’ membership.
Amazon is entering health and wellness at a very busy time. The new Fitbit Sense covers some of the same ground, including measuring your temperature, and the Withings ScanWatch is coming soon. Plus, of course, we can expect new wellness features in the upcoming Apple Watch, expected in the coming weeks.
But this is certainly a strikingly different and promising start.
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