Rise of mindful tech: every step you take, every move you make

Chris Dancy tracks every aspect of his life through wearable sensor devices – and soon, he predicts, so too will you

Once upon a time there was an evil overlord known as the internet. The internet commanded an army of iPhones that enslaved humanity by unleashing an information overload.

We were freed only by the act of unplugging and undergoing a gruelling but cleansing digital detoxification.

This is the fairytale we are told about our smartphones and other connected devices.

The moral of the story is that we have no control over this flow of information and we are doomed to an always-on existence in which tweets, emails, IMs, Facebook updates and other miscellaneous alerts are hurled at us.


Balderdash! We can keep our phones and our sanity. Leaving aside the (admittedly) huge issue of entrusting personal data to large global tech corporations, our personal tech can work for us by providing insights into how much we exercise, what we eat, how long we sleep for, what we say, the memories we capture in images and much more.

This is the world of the Quantified Self where almost everything that can be measured is measured. Quantified Self consultant and 'mindful cyborg' Chris Dancy, speaking recently at the 8th Annual Irish Human Computer Interaction (iHCI) conference at Dublin City University, believes that if we "make the data work for us" we can learn from this and become better people as a result.

He should know: four years and 100lbs ago he was an out-of-work IT consultant. Staring the economic downturn in the face he chose to pursue the field of personal informatics.

Dancy began wearing every sensor possible to record steps, posture, pulse and caloric intake while hooking his home up with sensors for functions such as sound, temperature and lighting.

The goal for Dancy was improved health and increased self-awareness.

A belt with sensors and accompanying app corrected his bad posture. Collating his snacking and Netflix habits led to insights about comfort eating that helped shed the excess weight.

As Dancy puts it, he was creating a feedback loop between himself and his personal data.

He also constantly wears Google Glass and Narrative Clip, a small voice-activated automatic camera for life logging.

Dancy explains that everything is a feedback loop; if he sees his heart-rate rising he stops, breathes and relaxes. If the decibels registered by his voice are too high he adjusts for a gentler tone. His personal informatics are essentially feeding into a mindful state of awareness.

This would have been considered excessive up until very recently but the arrival of the Apple Watch and iOS 8's Apple Health could soon make quantified selfers of us all.

Remember when we balked at the notion of checking email from a mobile phone?

Soon, the idea of not tracking our heartrate or physical activity using wearable technologies may induce a feeling of uncomfortable disconnection.

We might not like it but when the juggernaut of Apple introduces a new device for existing technologies, it soon reaches mass adoption. The HealthKit for developers promises to tie together medical records, popular health apps and wearable sensors for a whole new level of quantified self. In fact, the mobile-health monitoring space is worth an estimated US$9 billion so watch this space.

Dancy notes that five years ago a slew of devices were needed to do what the iPhone or Android smartphone can now do alone. He wears and carries quite a few devices himself and is often referred to by the media as the world’s most-connected man but the title doesn’t sit well with him; he just wants to collect data, and discreet technologies appeal to him.

“Who wants to be the most connected man? You just want to be human,” he says with a sigh.

He doesn’t brand himself a technology expert; one of the most appealing things about what Dancy has done is that it is something we all can do.

"Princess Diana was the people's princess, well I like to think of myself as the people's data," he says, laughing. "I don't consider myself any more advanced than anyone else; I do consider myself more aware."

“We don’t need pills, we need skills. I think data can do that. If we critically use our information we can learn so much about ourselves,” says Dancy as he enthusiastically demonstrates an iPhone app to me called Timehop, scrolling back through digital memories on this day two, three and four years ago.

So what will this brave new world of personal informatics look like? "Well, your future selfie won't be a picture of you on a roller-coaster; it will be your heart rate and blood work showing your authentic fear," claims Dancy, adding "Your body is a platform for information – you just don't know it yet." Mindful living: Apps for that Tiny Buddha This is one of Dancy's favourites. "We need to be kinder to each other and technology can help us," he says of this app that dispenses daily mantras, reminders and kind words. It's canned mindfulness.

Timehop Don't let all of your social media activity go to waste. Use it as a chance for reflection; Timehop sucks in Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Foursquare activity to build a time machine to your life exactly one, two or more years ago.

Up The Up wristband from Jawbone tracks steps taken, has an exercise mode and sleep tracking too. All of this is graphed and the app has a food diary. It’s a one-stop shop for stitching together most of your fitness data and working out what kind of actions lead to better sleep or healthier eating. It also messages you to go to sleep at an optimum time.

Mindfulness This is the kind of app that you need to fire up before a hectic morning or after a stressful meeting. Sit down, put your earphones in and breathe. There are both guided and silent meditations. For the quantified selfer, there are stats on how many meditations you do per week, how long they were and what kind. There’s no point in relaxing if you can’t chart it.