Health IT

Startup unveils a wearable device it says can count calories — but it doesn’t actually exist yet

If you’ve been following tech or mobile health news this week, you might have stumbled across AIRO, a Canadian startup that says it can use sensors to monitor caloric intake. But don’t get too excited just yet. Rather than using an accelerometer to count steps, AIRO says it uses heart rate monitoring to track exercise, […]

If you’ve been following tech or mobile health news this week, you might have stumbled across AIRO, a Canadian startup that says it can use sensors to monitor caloric intake. But don’t get too excited just yet.

Rather than using an accelerometer to count steps, AIRO says it uses heart rate monitoring to track exercise, calories burned and stress levels. But to paint a more complete picture of health, it goes a step further. The device, which is a buttonless aluminum band worn around the wrist, also contains a spectrometer that the company claims can automatically count calories.

Co-founder Abhilash Jayakumar explained that process to Endgadget: “As your body breaks the food down, the sensor can detect the amount of light that passes through the blood based on green, red and infrared patterns.” Since different metabolites have different properties, the sensor would apparently be able to tell how much fat, protein and carbohydrates were in something the wearer ate and convert that into calories.

Spectrometry is indeed a technique that is applied to nutritional and metabolic research and while it’s been studied in this kind of application before, it doesn’t seem to have been commercialized in this way. Maybe there’s a reason for that.

LiveScience asked Michelle MacDonald, a clinical dietitian at National Jewish Health in Denver, about the likeliness that something like this could work:

“Most of the nutrients in the foods you eat are absorbed by the gut, then sent to the liver first and foremost through the portal vein for absorption and processing. What ends up in your wrist is a distant remnant of what is absorbed from your meal.”

That, and the sensitivity of that device would likely be sacrificed to keep the price low, she said.

Nutritional tracking is something that’s been missing from the array of wrist-worn health trackers, and the automation of it is an enticing proposition. But as Jayakumar told Gigaom, the company has not made public its early research or tested the spectrometry technology broadly. I emailed the AIRO team asking whether they planned to publish research but did not receive a response at time of publishing.

What’s even more surprising is that AIRO is now selling the device for $159 through pre-order, even though it has no working prototype or app (Jayakumar told All Things D that the company expects to have a working device by December and a commercial product by next fall).

While I certainly won’t be buying one (at least yet), I give the co-founders, three young University of Waterloo alumni, credit for thinking of a different approach. The concept of using heart rate to calculate exertion and caloric burn, rather than steps and weight, is appealing if the technology works right. As is the addition of stress monitoring and a smartphone app that sends alerts with specific exercises or recommendations. The device also has LARK-like functionalities that use circadian rhythm to track sleep cycles and offer advice, according to AIRO.

Interesting idea, but definitely not ready for primetime or commercial sales. If the company needs that pre-sale money, I wonder why it didn’t take the crowdfunding approach instead, as so many of its digital health counterparts have?

[Image credit: AIRO]

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