A couple weeks ago, a Kickstarter campaign for the TZOA
environment-tracking wearable went live. The metallic gadget is shaped like a guitar pick, clips onto backpack straps or waistbands, and promises to connect users with real time information about the surrounding air quality via an app. In a TZOA-enabled world, we’ll have access to real-time maps of air quality in their neighborhoods and cities. Then we can view air pollution and UV measurements like calories or steps: as quantifiable data that can inform better behavior. We can avoid certain routes to work, or throw away cleaning products with toxic ingredients.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because TZOA’s release is hot on the heels of at least two other gadgets that, save the industrial design, are pretty much exactly the same. We recently covered the Clarity
keychain, designed with Chinese users in mind, and the cartoonish AirBeam
, the physical manifestation of the founder’s work on crowdsourcing environmental quality data. This wave of gadgets is designed to turn all of us into roaming air quality detection stations. Problem is, it’s hard to imagine users wanting to become roaming air quality detection stations.
The trend’s genesis is logical enough: the cost of sensors keeps dropping, making it easier for upstarts to build connected hardware. Plus, data-collecting fitness wearables have been on the market long enough to set a precedent. “I read that it’s something like one in ten Americans have a Fitbit, or if you don’t have one, you have an app on your phone,” says Laura Moe, co-founder of TZOA, as one reason to enter the connected health gadget arena. Compound all that with some Silicon Valley rhetoric—“I deeply believe that once that information is freely available people will be impacted,” Moe says—and a slew of gadgets aimed at improving the environment makes perfect sense.
What’s less clear is where this micro-trend will wind up. All these devices focus on measuring PM 2.5 particles, which come from polluting actions like car exhaust and construction, and are tiny enough to get trapped in our lungs. The EPA says exposure to these can lead to heart and lung disease, aggravated asthma, and decreased lung function—among other problems—so knowing about them is, on its face, a good thing. Up until the availability of these sensors, getting data on those particle levels was expensive and hard to come by. Now, for basically the same price as a Jambox, that data is available, and reliable. TZOA is working with the EPA, Georgia Tech, and The Coalition for Clean Air, among others, to get the most accurate figures. But unless you’re severely asthmatic, or a curious citizen-scientist, why would you shell out $100 to $200 to get those numbers?
“That’s also the biggest question from a user space. Okay, now I know radiation is high, what next? If you wear Jawbone or Fitbit, you know you can move more. We have to find ways to act,” says Vadik Marmeladov, creative director at Lapka. Lapka launched its “personal environment monitor” in 2012, making it very early to the scene. Last week, they rolled out updated software for their mostly European user base. The Lapka PEM isn’t a wearable, but an iPhone peripheral with modules that measure things like air quality, radiation levels, and nitrous levels in food, and plugs directly into the phone’s headphone jack.
As Marmeladov sees it, there’s a boom in environmental tracking devices because there’s a very specific white space to fill. In general, we occupy three places: our homes, our offices, and our cities. Local weather stations cover the city, and now devices like Nest or connected weather stations monitor our fixed environments. “Then there’s something in between, walking to the office or going underground, or getting stuck in a traffic jam,” he says. “Or you keep going to school on some weird route and you don’t know what’s going on there. What Lapka wants to do, and other guys in connected hardware want to do, is fill in the whole picture.”
The Lapka team has had two years to see how users collect and react to data, and to start scheming about practical use cases. The creators of TZOA, Clarity, and AirBeam, all hope that down the road, having citizen-collected data could influence policy on air pollution. That’s a pie in the sky, so these companies also need to promote short term goals that look at changing user behaviors in ways that echo the prompts you get from Jawbones and Fitbits. Enviro-trackers can supply suggestions like a healthier bike route to work, or to open a window to get fresher air. The question is whether these small actions on their own are compelling enough to lure users. Marmeladov says potential follow up actions could eventually become more personalized, giving users in different regions—where certain air quality patterns might surface—access to tools for healthier living. It’s a promise similar to that of the Internet of Things: connected gadgets will intuit what we need before we do. Marmeladov has some ideas of how that might work (“The most obvious example in Europe is the humidity is low all the time, so we can send you with an alert for a special price for a humidifier that’s connected to the cloud,” he says), but for now, the future is cloudy.