Amazon Halo: I Have Questions


    Now that we’re all trapped at home and face an indefinite future of remote work, we have a lot more time to visit the fridge, raid the pantry, and sit in our home offices. It also provides ample opportunity for us to notice how we’re not walking as much, working out, or fitting into our mostly-unused work clothes.

    I already wear an Apple Watch that’s tracking my steps, heart rate, and keeping me abreast of incoming messages and news (but not yet sleep, though that’s on the way — thanks, watchOS 7). I don’t really need another wrist-based device.

    On the other hand, Amazon Halo is the anti-Apple Watch, leaving behind a screen and notifications for a laser-like focus on watching your personal health and wellness. It’s also not just hardware: It’s the Halo Band and the Halo Service. You can get the Halo wrist band and 6 months of service for $69.95 (it’s normally $99.95). After that, there’s a $3.99 a month subscription fee. This leads to my first question:

    As another Amazon Service, similar to Music or Video, can it be folded into Prime or at least added as a $10-a-year premium?

    Amazon Halo Band tracks sleep and fitness in its own Amazon-y way. Instead of just tracking steps or various kinds of exercise and activity based on duration, it credits you more for the intensity of activity. A run, for instance, gets you more than a walk. It may also be the first service to penalize your scores for not moving around. This leads to another question:

    Does Amazon worry that we’ll come to resent a device that criticizes our life choices? To be fair, I already resent my Apple Watch for pestering me about standing up and breathing.

    In some ways, these features are still table stakes in the world of personal fitness devices. Things get interesting in Halo’s “Body Fat Percentage” tracker, which, for what it’s worth, doesn’t even need the Halo Band hardware. The system uses your smartphone’s camera to build a realistic-3D image of you. Yes, you have to strip down to your skivvies and take a photo. You also have to share your height and weight. Machine Learning and Deep Neural Networks then come up with a BMI (Body Mass Index). There’s even a slider that lets you see how you might look with a different BMI.

    Why does Amazon make you upload your likely embarrassing (maybe I’m projecting here) near-nude photo to its cloud for analysis?

    Amazon promises to delete the image as soon as the faceless AI is done, but I don’t like it.

    It’s also especially confusing when you consider the other marquee feature, the ability to analyze your tone of voice (read emotion), is all done locally. It, too, uses AI, and a pair of Halo Band hardware mics, to figure out if you’re speaking in a friendly, calm, stressed, or happy tone, but it does the analysis on your phone.

    To have such divergent approaches on a single service is a real headscratcher. It’s like one team didn’t talk to the other.

    Leaving aside these privacy concerns, I do have other questions about Tone. Amazon says the app’s AI analyzes vocal attributes like pitch (is my voice too high?), intensity (am I screaming?), tempo (am I speaking too fast?) and rhythm (am I …singing?) to understand the tone of your voice.

    The Halo Band doesn’t arrive listening to your voice. You have to train it and allow the pair of mics to listen. I know I’d soon forget I set it up and then, when I looked in the app, be mortified at how I spoke to my wife, kids, and the cable guy.

    Does Tone’s voice analysis improve over time? I talk a lot, especially now that I’m so often alone in my home office and need to keep myself entertained. Can Halo’s Tone analysis service use that to get smarter?

    How many false positives should I expect? There’s no way Halo’s system will be able to tell when I’m kidding.

    How often should I feel bad that I raised my voice? Sometimes I shout just to be sure that my wife, who might be upstairs, hears me. I am NOT angry.

    What about other languages? Perhaps tone of voice is the same no matter what language you use. I mean, I can tell when someone is yelling in Chinese, even if I can’t understand a word they’re saying.

    Perhaps my biggest question is why there’s no Alexa on the Halo device. It’s not that Amazon is concerned about sending information to the cloud. (Remember our mostly naked bodies?) It has the mics and will be on us all the time. Maybe it has to do with the Tone feature and that integrating Alexa might’ve lead to confusion: Are you talking to your friend and Halo’s Tone should be listening, or are you talking to the Halo Band and Alexa should listen in?

    I give Amazon credit for taking a slightly different health, fitness, and wellness wearable path and, with it, at least a couple of big swings. I’m too self-conscious to take a seminude photo of myself (even for the sake of fitness), but I would love to test-drive Tone.



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