Human’s new quantified self app aims at mere mortals

By Fritz Nelson , written on September 3, 2013

From The News Desk

Human, an iPhone app that just went live in the iTunes app store today, is an elegantly simple addition to the genre known as “quantified self,” the digital movement that has led us to track, measure, compare, improve, and share our every activity, from exercise to caloric intake to sleep. (Let’s hope future apps are spared our excretions.)

Human aims to compete in an overcrowded market that includes sensor-laden wearable gizmos, like the FitBits and Jawbone Ups and Nike Fuel Bands, on the basis of its simplicity, arguing that Human can bring health and happiness to the rest of us mere mortals, and in a way that actually sustains app usage.

Human’s first assumption is that the smartphone itself is the wearable computer, that its location services and accelerometers are capable of being combined to passively track its user’s physical activity accurately, down to the form of transport. Companies like Fitbit and Nike, Human co-founder Renato Olmos says, are focused on “just pushing boxes,” by which he means selling hardware.

Of course, apps like Strava, Runkeeper, and MapMyRun also take the smartphone/passive tracking approach, which leads to Human’s second assumption,  that most of the leading fitness applications focus mainly on the athlete, throwing a dizzying array of data and dashboards at the user, and hoping that data will encourage a change in activity, to achieve greater and greater heights. Often, that data has to be loaded to a website or onto the mobile device.

These chronological data feeds, Olmos says, miss a crucial opportunity: the casual user. Human’s founder believes that the casual user wants to get healthy “but wants something that doesn’t set the bar high,” and one easy way to achieve that goal is to simply walk (or run or ride a bike) at least 30 minutes per day. Human calls this the “daily 30,” and every design decision in the app is built around it.

The theory is that because Human doesn’t require a $100 or $150 wearable band, and because it doesn’t show all sorts of complicated graphs, and because it focuses on one, simple, non-athletic, and achievable goal, the average person will use it more.

The company was founded by Renato Valdés Olmos, who started Cardcloud, an online business card service acquired by Mobilio in 2012 (Amazon CTO Werner Vogels was one of Cardcloud’s investors) and Paul Veugen, who created Usabilla, a service that provides Web design feedback. The founders are from Amsterdam, but started the company in San Francisco. Olmos says he and Veugen are still applying for US visas.

Olmos says that he and Veugen founded the company, as founders often do, with some personal bias. Olmos used to weigh 320 pounds, and now weighs 176 pounds. He considers himself the normal person who just needed to start simple, although reading about his own personal journey and weight loss doesn’t really scream “simple” as much as it screams “intensity.” Veugen, on the other hand, is an athlete.

But both believe that the current crop of products are less accessible for a mainstream audience. He says that for most people getting started is the most difficult thing to do, and that for those who are obese, just getting a gym membership is scary. He says that obese people don’t see great visual progress, so the motivation that Human can provide is crucial, creating “little endorphin moments throughout the day.”

Olmos says there is a mountain of evidence that 30 minutes of simple activity can have a tremendously positive impact on chronic health problems, both physical and mental. He points to Dr. Mike Evans, a practicing physician and an associate professor at the University of Toronto, who regularly curates health research, including a widely viewed video that suggests that low cardio-respiratory fitness is the strongest predictor of death, and that simply walking 30 minutes each day can reduce hypertension, arthritis pain, dementia, anxiety, and depression, among other chronic health threats.

Turn on the Human app, and it quite simply passively tracks how much you’ve moved (walk, run, bike), and how far you are from meeting the daily 30. In addition to a graphical display of where you are relative to that daily 30 (essentially the home mode of the app), Human pushes encouraging, congratulatory messages when you achieve your goals. You get additional points for reaching 60 or 90 minutes. I tried it out, and it really is that simple.

Eventually Human will get more sophisticated, Olmos says, tapping into your Google Calendar, for example, to send suggestions, say to get off a bus a couple stops early, ensuring you that you’ll still make it to work on time, but also make your daily 30.

Human also tracks more stationary activities, like Yoga and climbing, although you have to tell the app that you’re conducting these activities. (The exercise choices include Yoga, “winter sports,” and simply “exercise." You can also classify non exercise activity, like sleep, work ,and my two favorites, “relax” or “party.") Human will remember those locations and the associated activity automatically from then on.

Still, this is about normal everyday activity, rather than reps at a gym. Miles logged on a treadmill or stationary bike won’t make their way into Human for now, either. “We actually want people to get out there and move,” Olmos says. But that doesn’t allow for those who wish to exercise in the privacy of, say, a garage, or inside on during inclement weather. Human deliberately avoids tracking short trips to the restroom or water cooler, he adds.

Olmos admits that because the app is requiring the use of the phone’s sensors, it will impact battery life, just like any location based service will. He did not want to put any hard and fast numbers to Human’s impact, and truthfully there are so many factors that drain a phone’s batteries it would be difficult to isolate anyway.

Human ships on iOS first, although Olmos hopes to have an Android version this year. The company is also working on other features, especially around social. For now, you can share your activity, but not your achievements, on Facebook, but not Twitter. Users can sign up for the service in the app using an e-mail address, or via Facebook. But the next phase of social media incorporation is to let users compete and collaborate.

The daily 30 is just the start, of course. The app is collecting background information that Olmos believes might influence medicine and science as more users sign on. For instance, Human could ask users for genetic information, or data on major injuries, with the goal of creating a “health passport with data that the user controls,” Olmos says, adding that his loftiest goal is to make Human the “world’s most friendly and humane health company.”

While these additions sound promising, it’s also easy to imagine that they will slowly erode much of the everyman simplicity the company boasts today. Already the app includes a visible setting whereby the user can download their data, but that data gets shipped as a zipped JSON file in e-mail, not exactly the provence of mere mortals. Olmos says that Human included this primarily to demonstrate that the data belongs to the user. Alas, the point will likely be lost on the technologically unsavvy (read: normal) consumer.

Olmos says Human will make money when consumers unlock features, like being able to see data in more depth. But he also thinks Human’s monetary upsides lies in long-term partnerships in big data, like for consumers to prove to their insurers that they’re living a healthy life in order to get a discount; this sort of data sharing would be purely on an opt-in basis, Olmos assures me.

For now, however, Human needs to reach a critical mass for any of that to become possible. The incentive to share personal information will have to be extremely high. Examples of users doing so are scant at best. Human is also competing in an incredibly crowded field. Olmos believes that Human can stand out because of its simplification, and says that the company has deliberately left out charts, instead focusing on minutes as the measurement.

Human is funded by angel investors, including Janis Krums of Elementz Nutrition, Naveen Selvadurai (a Foursquare co-founder), Koen Bok (a Facebook product designer), Alan Braverman (founder The Giant Pixel Co., Geni and Eventbrite), and several European investors.

It’s available in the iTunes app store now.