Amazons New Fitness Tracker Sounds Like a Body-Shaming, Tone-Policing Disaster


Illustration for article titled Amazons New Fitness Tracker Sounds Like a Body-Shaming, Tone-Policing Disaster

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There are bad ideas, and then there is Amazon’s attempt to get into the health tracker market with a new health subscription service and accompanying tracker, Amazon Halo and Amazon Halo Band.

The pitch here is that Halo Band is a more holistic health tracker. In its press release announcing the device and service, Amazon says that the Halo Band is “purpose-built to focus on your health and wellness—unlike smartwatches and fitness trackers, it doesn’t have a screen or constant notifications.” In that sense, it’s like the Whoop tracker—and frankly, it looks a whole lot like it too. The sensor array itself contains an accelerometer, temperature sensor, heart rate monitor, two microphones, LED indicator light, and a button you can use to turn microphones on or off. Amazon claims the Halo Band will last about a week on a charge. There’s also a companion app that measures things like activity and sleep, and like Fitbit, offers “Labs” for experimental apps with partners. Oh, and also the ability to scan your body fat percentage using your phone, as well as analyze the tone you’re speaking in.

When this news broke, I had to blink at my screen a few times because I could not believe this launch was real after the Amazon Echo Look went to the big tech graveyard in the sky earlier this year. But no, this is a $65 device and $4 monthly subscription platform that encourages you to scan a 3D image of yourself in your undies with your phone so it can create a render of your body. Some “new innovations in computer vision and machine learning” then allow Amazon Halo to calculate your body fat percentage. Per the Verge, once the calculating is done, “the app will give you a little slider you can drag your finger on to have it show what you would look like with more or less body fat.”

There are obvious concerns right off the bat with body dysmorphia and eating disorders. In an article describing the body scan feature, Amazon states it doesn’t recommend people to scan their bodies more than once every two weeks, as it takes a long time to reduce body fat. In an email, a spokesperson also told Gizmodo that there is “education throughout the feature in the app that helps customers understand the context of their body fat percentage range, what body fat percentage means and more.” They also said that the slider tool would not “go below the healthy body fat percentage for the customer’s sex and age.” Amazon also told the Verge that the feature would only be accessible for people 18 or older.

It’s nice that Amazon has put safeguards in place, but body dysmorphia and eating disorders are not rational. Being 18 years old or older does not mean you’re less likely to develop body image issues or bulimia. Being educated about your health on multiple levels, knowing what is the healthy thing to do—that doesn’t stop a person from engaging in unhealthy eating behaviors. A recommendation to only measure yourself once every two weeks doesn’t deter someone from obsessively tracking their data and re-scanning their body, or hyper-obsessively fixating on what a “thinner” version of themselves would look like. Body dysmorphic disorder affects somewhere between 5 to 10 million people in the U.S., and this NIH study says it’s not only relatively common but likely underreported. The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders also states that at least 30 million people of all ages and genders currently suffers from an eating disorder in the U.S. Even with safeguards, you’re putting a potentially dangerous and affordable tool in the hands of millions of vulnerable people.

But body dysmorphia aside, there are also different types of fat. The squishy kind you can pinch? That’s subcutaneous fat, and it’s relatively harmless even if it might make you feel self-conscious due to society’s garbage beauty standards. The kind that’s dangerous is visceral fat, which lies underneath the abdominal wall and between your organs. Visceral fat, according to Harvard Medical School, is linked to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and other health risks. Visceral fat also isn’t always easy to detect, either. You can be someone who on the outside appears “normal” or “thin” but on the inside, carry a lot of visceral fat. There are non-invasive ways to estimate your visceral fat, but the only real foolproof method is expensive imaging tests like MRIs or CT scans.

Amazon also told Gizmodo that the Body feature “provides an accurate estimate of total body fat” and currently doesn’t distinguish between subcutaneous or visceral fat. So if you were someone who was thin with a disproportionately high level of visceral fat, this would not help you. It might lead you to think you’re healthy when actually you need to make lifestyle changes. Conversely, if you have some extra jiggle but are otherwise metabolically healthy, you might be led to think you have to lose weight…even if you’re normal and fine. Amazon says its Body feature is as accurate as the tests your doctors would give you, but your doctor also can give you vital context about your personal health that an app just can’t.

Body-scanning isn’t necessary to reduce fat or improve your health. It’s trite, but if you have a physical health goal in mind, no gizmo or high-tech scan will replace consulting a dietician, personal trainer, or doctor to do so in a healthy, sustainable way over a reasonable period of time.

While I have serious concerns about this body scan feature, Amazon really is rubbing salt in the wound with its Tone feature. Granted, this is an optional feature. You could just not opt in. But if you do, the microphones on the Halo Band will occasionally listen in on your voice and judge it based on “energy” and “positivity” so you can “better understand how [you] may sound to others.” Supposedly, this feature is geared toward improving stress and emotional well-being.

“There are many ways that you can use Tone, but I will share an example of my own,” writes Maulik Majmudar, a cardiologist and principal medical officer for Amazon Halo, in a blog about the Tone feature. “I have been working from home with three kids under the age of four, so I use Tone to gut check that I am not taking any stress out on my family or friends. I check my Tone results so that I can be more intentional about how I communicate in these strange times—and have noticed it takes a burden off my wife, as she doesn’t have to be the one to tell me I am overly stressed.”

I don’t know what to say about the state of society if we need to quantify tone to understand how we speak to others. Are social relationships important? Yes, but most people don’t need microphones and a voice algorithm to tell you when you sound snippy or aggressive or happy. Measuring your tone is not a replacement for being an adult and, I don’t know, seeking out therapy if you struggle to express yourself in your relationships or at work. Tone-tracking—a phrase I shuddered writing—shouldn’t be used to avoid stressing your loved ones in a misguided attempt to improve your relationships. Negative emotions have a purpose and can act as a signal to loved ones that you might need some care and attention. It sounds like Amazon might have good intentions but could use some time to re-watch Pixar’s Inside Out.

To be honest, this feels like Amazon trying to stand out in a crowded health tech space. The sad thing is there’s a lot about Halo and Halo Band that are good. A simple $65 ($100 after the early access period expires) screenless tracker with a relatively cheap $4 subscription plan would be an attractive option for many casual users just trying to improve their activity levels. Some of the features Amazon’s integrated into the Halo platform, like a weekly focus on activity as opposed to daily, are actually pretty thoughtful. It’s a shame, then, that Amazon’s decided to veer into this self-quantifying dystopia without asking if anyone really, truly needed this.