Researchers create glasses and app to monitor fitness

The USC Center for Body Computing and the USC Roski Eye Institute teamed up with nationwide eye care insurer Vision Service Plan to create a wearable technology for improving fitness that works through a participant’s glasses. The pilot study, which kicked off Aug. 27, outfitted USC staff with the eyewear as well as an app, known as Level, developed in conjunction with VSP’s Global Innovation Lab.

The glasses seem like a standard pair at first glance, said Andrew Kiebel, a digital health fellow at the CBC who worked on the project. However, high-tech additions such as Bluetooth connectivity and a strong battery are all built into the eyewear.

“These [features] can track your step count, your calories burned, your activity time, and your distance traveled,” Kiebel said. “It can pretty much do all the same measurement that are most common for those in leading fitness.”

The app, which has a “find my glasses” function as well as a social network, engages users by making their progress available to others who can monitor and encourage them. The biggest job the app has is to further VSP’s charity initiative, Eyes of Hope.

“The Bluetooth syncs with an app on your phone, which sinks with VSP, and their charity Eyes of Hope,” Kiebel said. “Through that, every time a participant accrues enough steps for daily points to achieve a goal they’ve decided for themselves, it will trigger a donation for a comprehensive eye exam and eye glasses to someone in need through VSP’s charity initiative.”

Users can select one of four charities that support veterans, the homeless, school-aged children or senior citizens. Once their goal is reached, they can redeem their points to send eye exams and glasses to those impacted by their charity of choice.

“This incentive not only motivates me to be more proactive, but it helps to know every step is towards a deeper meaning of humanity,” said Albert Jacobs, a participant in the study who works for the Ostrow School of Dentistry at USC.

The solution does not accommodate everyone. If an individual wears contact lenses, or does not need glasses at all, there is no way for him or her to participate.

“My prescription is so high, I choose to wear contacts because it’s easier at work,” said Dr. Gloria Chiu, an assistant professor of clinical ophthalmology and the chief optometrist at the USC Roski Eye Institute. “Right now, because it’s a pilot study, they’re focusing on people who need to wear glasses so that they collect more data. People who have a prescription need their glasses in order to see, drive and go to work.”

The study has been looking into alternatives for people who cannot wear the glasses, but as of now they have not found any. Chiu proposed modifying the technology to work for sunglasses, but admitted that this idea has its own flaws.

“The problem is if you’re walking inside, or at the gym, you might not want to wear your glasses,” Chiu said. “It kind of defeats the purpose of tracking all of your activity if you don’t wear your sunglasses most of the time.”

Still, Chiu saw the glasses as an improvement on traditional wrist-worn technologies, as a bracelet can be forgotten at home when the wearer is in a rush, but eyeglasses are essential. Researchers also said that this wearable technology’s location on the body makes the eyewear ideal for data collection.

“Because of its positioning on the head, which is the center of gravity, it gives a different context of data compared to wrist worn centers,” Kiebler said. “In the future, hopefully it should give us some information on gait and posture.”

Jacobs said that participating in the study allowed him a closer look at an innovation that may become commonly used in the future because of its convenience for the wearer.

“Placing a fitness tracking device inside a pair of eyewear frames is pure genius,” Jacobs said. “I’m forced to wear glasses regularly because of my bad eyesight, so why not add a device that tracks my steps and calories burned?”

Kiebel said that although the project’s charitable aspirations — which no other wearable device is incorporating at the moment — make it stand out, its technological prowess truly sets it apart from other developments in this area.

“I think it really demonstrates USC’s commitment to research and innovation,” Kiebel said. “It shows how USC is really on the frontier and forefront, and is really committed to the novel technology developed in the field right now.”