Misfit Engineer Rachel Kalmar Wants You To Be An Intelligent Node

Kalmar is breaking wearable devices out of data silos and harnessing the crowd.

Misfit Engineer Rachel Kalmar Wants You To Be An Intelligent Node
[Photo: Flickr user Peretz Partensky]

Dr. Brainlove, dubbed “The Most Burning Man Thing Ever,” is a school bus-size brain that changes color based on neurological activity. For Playa revelers, it was a source of wonder. For Misfit Wearable senior engineer Rachel Kalmar, it was research.

Kalmar, who helped bring Dr. Brainlove to life, is working to make wearables blossom into the popular devices they were meant to be. In order break free of the one-dimensional data silos of today’s step-counting world, she is building algorithms and databases that track contextual information and look for patterns in order to achieve long-term improvements for users.

“Right now it’s just like the early days with cell phone cameras, which kind of sucked,” Kalmar tells Co.Labs. “But the best camera was the one that was in your pocket and today, the best data is the data that you have now.”

Though still in the early stages, the Misfit team is working on ways to make data run in the background in a passive manner similar to that of Google Maps or Waze. As well as predictive health and activity suggestions such as the internally brewed ETA engines we are seeing from companies like Lyft and Uber.

“What would motivate me to get up from my computer is if my activity tracks both my activity and my Internet,” she says. “If my Internet gets slow then that gets me to close my laptop and step away.”

But there is a fine line between prediction and automation in activity tracking. A fellow Misfit employee who also worked on Apple’s Siri recalled that internal testing showed that users lost confidence in the product when the AI misunderstood them. “That’s a challenge not just for Misfit, but I think for the field,” she says.

That challenge becomes more acute as wearables companies race to become smaller and cheaper than their competitors. Misfit took the first steps into accessibility with the Shine–a small, magnetic tracker that could be put anywhere on your body for targeted activity tracking. But the growth of that entire sector is stunted right now, says Kalmar, in part because the data is only accessible to those who can afford it–most devices cost more than $100.

Their new tracker, the Flash, which is priced at $50, represents an attempt to attract a different consumer market. It has the same functionality as the Shine but without the cost barrier. “We wanted everybody to be able to have a device and we know that price plays a role in that decision or in that conversation,” Kalmar says.

Misfit also partnered with women’s fashion brand Chromat–a cool kid in the fashion industry–for a high fashion accessory line, positioning itself for use over its uglier wearable counterparts.

But the design rule on both ends of the wearables spectrum is to make devices smart enough that you’d wear them even if you weren’t doing anything. More wearable body parts mean more use and more precise data. “If you make devices that people want to wear,” says Kalmar, “and you make them passive, then you have that data for free.”

What people often forget is that wearables essentially make you a connected device, part of the broader Internet of things ecosystem. Better environmental data can be used to categorize more interesting behaviors and patterns, like seasonal affective disorder.

Though not yet in the production phase, Kalmar says she’d like to see a well-designed ring communicate with home devices–taking products like Netamo’s sun exposure bracelet a step further. “The ring would tell the lighting of my house how much light I’ve had exposure to and automatically tell it to compensate for shorter days.”

In order to gather that kind of data, these devices will have to communicate with each other, and not just rely on its own data the companies are deploying them today. “Data by itself, is not nearly as useful as if we understand what you as a person are trying to do, your goals, your values, and your patterns and that doesn’t come from any single device,” she says.

“I think that it’s now become obvious that we need to work together,” says Kalmar. “Because all of our devices collectively are much more interesting than any of our devices individually.”

Photo: Flickr user Peretz Partensky

To understand why, just look at Dr. Brainlove. This year the brain was responding to EEG input from a single participant. But next year, Kalmar wants to see the interactive bus controlled by wearables worn by the people in attendance.

“If you are using your arms, that data can show how it’s affecting the cerebral cortex.” says Kalmar. “If everybody is wearing something like the Shine or a Flash or an activity tracker, then you can get the brain to do different things based on sensor input.”

And what better way to celebrate wearable data’s coming of age than with thousands of Burning Man attendees. Wearing nothing but a bracelet.

About the author

Jennifer is a journalist and Silicon Valley native. A lover of long form, she reports on innovators using tech for greater causes.