Nothing we know about the limits of science and technology tells us that a simple sensor-packed wristband can tell us how many calories we've consumed. Yet an obscure company called Healbe says it's achieved the seemingly impossible. When I heard that the Russian tech startup would be showing its controversial GoBe health tracker--or what the company calls an "automatic body manager"--to the public for the first time at CE Week in New York Wednesday, I knew I had to see it.
Healbe's Indiegogo campaign raised more than $1 million, so its wrist-worn wearable clearly has supporters. But GoBe also has a slew of skeptics claiming there's no way Healbe has the technology to do what it says its wearable can do. See, Healbe says GoBe can count the calories you eat--not in real time, but after your body processes them. Healbe claims that the process is completely automatic, that you never have to input another food item or look up a calorie count again.
The scientific explanation is confusing, and what I saw at Healbe's modest CE Week booth didn't offer enough evidence to support the company's claims. I spent 30 minutes with the device, but didn't get to use it myself. Obviously, only rigorous scientific testing can support or refute the company's assertions. For now, all I can share is what I saw, and I didn't see an activity tracker than can automatically measure my calorie intake.
GoBe is a strange-looking but not ugly device that differs from other smartwatches in that you don't see much information, aside from the time, on your display. Its pressure and impedance sensors and accelerometer are nestled against your skin to collect all of the data that it then displays on your iOS or Android smartphone using Bluetooth.
After Healbe cofounder and managing director George Mikaberydze ate lunch, his app showed a glucose spike and corresponding rise in ingested calories (400-something prior to lunch, in the 700s after). He showed me a screenshot from his iPhone camera roll of his pre-lunch calorie levels. It seemed plausible, but I'm no medical expert and have no clue how accurate those calorie counts were.
How it works (if it works)
If GoBe can do what Healbe says it does, it would be the first wearable device to achieve such a feat. No other smartwatch or activity tracker has the ability, though plenty are capable of GoBe's other functions, which include monitoring your blood pressure, heart rate, and sleep patterns. Healbe explains its scientific breakthrough like this: Using an impedance sensor that sends high- and low-frequency signals through your tissue, GoBe can tell how much glucose your cells have absorbed after eating. Based on how fast your cells absorb the glucose and how long glucose levels remain elevated, Healbe's glucose curve can differentiate between fats, proteins, and carbs.
Doctors and scientists told TechHive's Jon Phillips that there's no correlation between glucose levels and calorie count. But Healbe maintains that its algorithms can now measure calories with 86 percent accuracy, according to internal tests that Mikaberydze told me will be released next week. Third-party tests will be conducted in July and released in August.
Mikaberydze told me that I couldn't use the device because each GoBe is tailored to its user: It learns your metabolic rhythms and normal glucose patterns and spits out hyper-individualized data. Mikaberydze's own GoBe would give me completely inaccurate readings, he said, because we don't respond to food in the same way. What's more, it takes a week for the GoBe to learn your body's behavior, he says. Now, it's true that we all respond differently to food intake. But I remain skeptical about the core of Healbe's claims: Experts say determining calorie intake based on the sensors Healbe is using remains beyond the pale of scientific feasibility and that there's no reliable method for a "glucose curve" to diiferentiate between fats, proteins and carbs.
But the only way to know for sure is to see tests, tests, and more tests--you know, some scientific support. Mikaberydze said Healbe is meeting with eight independent medical experts next week, ranging from nutritionists to doctors, who will each receive a GoBe and evaluate it.
Meanwhile, Indiegogo backers are still waiting for their own GoBes, which were scheduled to ship in June but have been delayed until September. Mikaberydze said issues with the product's Chinese manufacturers have caused the months-long delays. The $299 GoBe will be available in stores in October--if any retailers decide to stock the controversial product, that is. Mikaberydze showed me his business partner's Facebook page, littered with check-ins at Apple headquarters, Best Buy, and Fry's, as a weird kind of proof that the company is taking meetings. If the GoBe turns out to be a scam, it will have been an incredibly elaborate one.