Amazon Should Rethink Its Half-Baked Approach to Health-Tracking

Amazon Should Rethink Its Half-Baked Approach to Health-Tracking
Image: Amazon

Amazon’s Halo band, the company’s first fitness tracker, drew criticism when it launched because of its two marquee features: body fat scanning and tone analysis. Several reviews — including Gizmodo’s — describing the gadget as creepy and invasive. You might think that would lead Amazon to perhaps rethink its approach to health tech. Instead, Amazon’s doubling down with a new feature that uses your smartphone camera to rate your “Movement Health.”

Movement Health supposedly uses artificial intelligence, computer vision, and machine learning to analyse your functional fitness, or how well your body handles movements that can help with everyday tasks — think bending to pick up your groceries, lifting a child, or moving a stack of dishes from a cabinet to the counter. Trying to help people maintain a degree of functional fitness is a good and noble goal. I’m just not sure Amazon’s really thought this whole thing through.

Here’s how it works: The Halo app will guide a user through a roughly 10-minute assessment involving single leg balances, forward lunges, overhead squats, overhead reaches, and feet-together squats. The app gives you a score out of 100 and a breakdown of your results in terms of stability, mobility, and posture in different areas of your body. After that, the service will recommend 5-10 minute guided videos of corrective exercises to help you improve your weak areas. The idea is to do these short workouts at least three times a week, and to retest every 2-4 weeks.

Because this is Amazon, the announcement blog also gets into privacy. Your assessment videos are encrypted, sent to the cloud, and then deleted once they’ve been run through the algorithm.

This feature isn’t as creepy or problematic as body fat scanning or tone policing. The concept also isn’t novel — there are a handful of fitness apps that claim to analyse your form. On the surface, I can see how someone might think this is actually useful. But as part of the whole Halo experience, it’s a little half-baked.

Amazon told the Verge that while the algorithms were trained on a diverse set of bodies, you’re actually graded against some nebulous, uniform ideal that may not truly reflect what’s actually best for your specific needs, goals, and capabilities. All that does is leave you with a technically impressive feature that absolutely glosses over contextualizing how Movement Health scores relate to your overall health. What is the incentive to do these exercises? To better your Amazon Halo Movement Health score because that might mean you’ve fixed your bodily… stability? And that means you might have an easier time lifting heavy objects? Even if what you really want is a completely different health or fitness goal?

Image: AmazonImage: Amazon

It’s not that this feature is necessarily bad. It’s not even live yet, so it’s impossible to assess its effectiveness right now. But who exactly is this for? Does anyone walk around thinking to themselves, “Oh gee, lifting groceries has gotten tough lately. Let me grab my phone so it can tell me on a scale of 1-100 how good my left shoulder mobility is so that I know exactly which 10-minute exercises to do to fix that.”

More likely, you’d think to yourself, “Wow, I have noodle arms. I want to change that. Let me look up ways to strengthen my upper body.” Or maybe you’d just get one of those rolling grocery carts and call it a day.

That’s the baffling thing here. Amazon Halo is purposefully simplistic in design — the band doesn’t even have a display and its basic activity tracking isn’t particularly informative. And yet its marquee features are over-engineered to solve problems that don’t really exist in unsettling, invasive ways. They’re also all weirdly fixated with judging you based on ill-defined standards. It’s almost like this whole platform’s purpose is to show off Amazon’s technological strengths and half-heartedly stake a claim in the wearables market instead of actually helping people reach their health and fitness goals.