QS15: Measurement with Meaning

Walking into something as a newcomer is always an adventure of reality interacting with expectations. Though I wasn’t quite sure what to expect at the Quantified Self conference, it wasn’t what I expected. But in a good way.

QS15 Twitter robot

Tweet-painting robot at QS15

The conference was structured around three main activities: talks given on the main stage, breakout sessions, which took place at different smaller areas during the talks, and break times, where one might check out the vendors, grab a snack, or chat with fellow attendees.

The talks, about ten minutes each, were mostly about the speaker’s successes in changing some aspect of their life via quantifying and analyzing it. This is partly what I wasn’t expecting—the goal-focused and very positive nature of (most) everyone’s projects.

True, some of the presenters might be tallied on the obsessive side of the spectrum, but by and large, it was all about improving your life, and not recording everything as a method of self-preservation.

On this last point, one presenter even provided this quote from Nabokov, which generated a touch of controversy: “the collecting of daily details … is always a poor method of self-preservation.”

One important theme I saw, however, is the role of measuring itself—that the very act of quantifying your behaviors, whether it’s diet, exercise, TV watching, or your productivity, can change your behavior for the better.

Granted, there can also be profound personal insights from analyzing the data, especially when combining multiple sources, but it’s possible some of these benefits come from simply tracking. Especially when it’s done manually, which takes a great deal of persistence, with many people petering out after a few weeks at the most.

This presents an interesting question about technology’s increasing proficiency at passive tracking, and the aim to provide insights automatically. For instance, the Jawbone UP platform’s Smart Coach is supposed look at your exercise and activity data with your sleep data and give you advice about how to get better sleep.

If someone had tracked this manually, and done the analysis themselves, they may not only be a lot more familiar with the facts about their own sleep and exercise, but any insights derived might be more likely to be absorbed and translate to genuine change.

When insights are automatically provided will they lead to just as much adoption?

Probably not, but they could reach a lot more people who may not be able to keep up with measuring. So it’s probably still a good thing in the end.

The other important theme was something that I’ve also been encountering in other areas of my work—the importance of good questions.

For most of the QS projects, this took the form of achieving a personal goal, but sometimes it was simply a specific inquiry into a realm of one’s life. Just looking at data can be interesting, but without a good question motivating an analysis, it’s often not very useful.

In the worst case, you can find spurious connections and correlations within a large set of data that may get you off in the wrong direction.

And while at the beginning of the conference it was made clear that QS15 was not a tech conference, there was plenty of cool technology in the main hall to check out and discuss.

There are too many to cover in much detail, but here are a few that intrigued me:

  • Spire, a breath tracking device that says it can measure focus by analyzing your breathing pattern. If someone is interested in examining their productivity, this could be a promising device to check out. Also, it can let you know when you need a deep breath, which has various physiological and emotional benefits.
  • Faurecia manufactures seats for automobiles, and they were showing off a prototype that uses piezoelectric bands within the chair itself to measure heart rate and breathing patterns. This is great because it can do this through your clothing, and detect when you’re falling asleep, and possibly institute some countermeasures. The data could also sync up with your phone, say through Apple’s Healthkit, if you want to add it to your logs.
  • Oura
    is an activity and sleep tracker that uses a ring form factor, which for some people may be easier to sleep with than a wrist band. Their focus is on sleep and measuring how restorative your rest is. I look forward to seeing how this one develops.

The conference had a lot to offer—some inspiration, some cool technologies, surprisingly good lunches, and quite a bit to think about.


  1. Hi Ben,

    I attend mostly highly technical conferences & a few specialty trade shows, and one thing I loved was natural lighting. Just beautiful, and by day’s end, never felt fatigued (Thurs – Sat).

    Quick Q:
    Assuming you stopped by the Breezing booth, what (honestly) did you think of measuring and tracking metabolism?

    Love following your team,

  2. I think it fills an important gap in health tracking. I did stop by the booth, but I’m interested to learn from the website that it can track fat vs. carbohydrate burning. I’d be curious to learn more about how different metabolic rates (or changes in metabolic rate) correspond to how healthy or good people feel. Lots of possibilities, though.

  3. Yes, the Fat vs Carb burn is interesting, and the Resting Metabolic Rate measurements are invaluable for Calorie Counting.
    Note the App & Web-culturally-ingrained misperception that Polar, PreCor, Apple Watch, Fitbit, MyfitnessPal, etc. are able to measure calories — they don’t, yet they do /pretend/ to. The New Leaf team (with Garmin) and now the Breezing Team are working to bring measured calorie burn vs the lazy and negligent reporting of population averages.
    Thanks for your work, Ben. Looking forward to your Teamwork as you all bring Meaning to Measurement!

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