Making us human again: an interview with Lumo BodyTech’s co-founder Andrew Chang

Lumo BodyTech Andrew Chang

Our posture is not only connected to our overall health and well-being, but serves as an essential part of how we communicate to each other as humans. At the Wearable Tech Show in London earlier this month, I had the chance to sit down and chat about wearable tech’s role in helping to improve our posture and further our ability to communicate with Andrew Chang, CTO and co-founder of Lumo BodyTech. Lumo BodyTech is the company behind the successful wearable posture sensors Lumoback and Lumo Lift. We talked at length about the effectiveness of wearables to help correct some of our biomechanical problems and how this new wave of computing may be the key to making us more human again.

I’ve covered Lumoback before, calling it the “nagging mom” of wearable tech. Both Lumoback (a sensor that you strap around your waist) and Lumo Lift (a small magnetic sensor that you clasp near your collarbone) are wearable devices that monitor your posture, and use visual and haptic cues to remind you to sit or stand up straight. As someone who suffers from chronic back, shoulder and neck pain, I am very interested in any device that can help take this pain away. I’ve been impressed by how focused, effective, and discrete the Lumo products have been, and would be wearing the Lift more often if it weren’t for the fact that its Android app hasn’t released yet (this is coming says Chang).

Where did the connection between wearables and body movement come from?

This actually came from my personal experiences with lower back pain. I’ve been suffering from lower back pain for over thirteen years now and it stemmed from an accident from when I was very young. I’ve done ultrasonic treatments, physical therapy, chiropractic, and nothing really worked long term. It was suggested to me that I take posture classes and within a couple of days almost all of my back pain went away.

Through just sitting and standing in a better posture I learned how to manage and control my back pain and that was the A-HA moment that led me and the team to ask ourselves how we could help improve people’s posture, and that is when we started to prototype a ton of different form factors and ideas to get people more aware about it.

We never really thought of ourselves as a wearable tech company and we still don’t really, even though a lot of people call us wearable tech. We think of ourselves as a posture and biomechanics company, and obviously right now the most effective solution is a wearable solution.

We never really thought of ourselves as a wearable tech company. We think of ourselves as a posture and biomechanics company.

You said you were considering different form factors and designs, how did you end up with the back strap for Lumoback?

So for that device we prototyped and tested a lot of different things. We did some image processing on the computer screen to see if we could detect slouching from there. But as our focus was on the lower back which you couldn’t see, we had to move past that. We looked at the use of pressure sensors and embedding them into seat cushions and into chairs, but we noticed that a lot of people would move throughout the day and don’t stay in one chair. So we knew we needed to create something that could be put onto the body.

We started with a patch, basically a smart band-aid type form factor. We did that for a couple of months. But the glue and the stickiness felt way too medical, and a lot of users didn’t know what to do with it and it would fall off. Then we tested clips and the clip form factor was very convenient but it was a little too casual and it was lost a lot – one of our early beta testers lost it in the toilet when he was in the bathroom. So that is when we moved to the band. What we noticed when we worked on the band is that it was already relevant and strangely familiar to people who have back pain because they are used to wearing back braces and this was a lot easier than wearing a back brace and it gave that comfort and confidence and protection.

So what did you learn from the Lumoback band that you took to create your new device the Lumo Lift?

This new form factor, the Lumo Lift, is focusing on a slightly different problem. Where Lumoback is focusing on lower backpain and posture on your pelvis, the Lumo Lift is about confidence and appearance. A lot of the user feedback we gained from the Lumoback folks was that they wanted to fix their upper body slouching and their neck and shoulders. They didn’t have the lower backpain but they wanted a product to solve this problem.

Also, the band is a very high commitment device that you have to put on and with Lift it’s a lot more casual and user friendly, and that is how we made the shift to a more consumer friendly product.

Both Lumoback and Lumo Lift use haptic feedback as a key way to communicate to the user. Talk to me about the use of haptics and why your company is so focused on using it as a communication method?

We have and are continuing to test different ways of giving feedback. In real-time it makes the most sense to use haptics because it’s silent and it feels like a reminder. It feels like someone is tapping you on the back to stand up straight and that is what we were going for. We have tried noises and sounds but that made people self-conscious; they don’t want to draw attention to something like this as this is a posture correction device, and some people don’t want others to know that they are working on their posture.

This is also why the device can be blended in discretely too. It can be worn on a bra strap. It can be worn on an undershirt. There are a lot of different ways that we are trying to blend this into the background for people who want it to be discrete. For others that want to bring it to the forefront, we have jewelry clasps they can choose from.

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Why was it important to offer a variety of clasps for the Lumo Lift?

Because you are wearing this device on your body it is a very personal thing and because its personal people love to customize and express themselves. A lot of customer feedback and research pointed to a wearable that you either don’t want people to know about or that you wanted to celebrate and have fun with. Both sides exist and we wanted to play with both and that is one of the design constraints that we worked with. That is why the top clasp of the Lift is magnetic which makes it interchangeable and we are right now working with other artists and the maker community to create new designs for the clasp, almost like open source hardware, and that is also quite exciting.

Chris Anderson, CEO of 3D Robotics recently did a keynote at the PCH Hardware Hackathon in Toronto, and he was talking about some of the key ingredients to successful hardware. He said that whatever you do, don’t put a screen on it. The lack of a screen is one of the things I really noticed about the Lumobody Tech products. Was this by design?

This is a very important point and we have thought about it a lot asking ourselves if we should have a screen or not. When we made the first Lumoback and even the Lumo Lift a lot of people wanted us to have a screen because people are used to that. There are already enough screens as it is.

The way that we designed both products and the way that we will design future products is based off of an understanding of the entire ecosystem, especially as it evolves. We are extremely excited about smartwatches and heads-up displays as we designed our products with an understanding that there is going to be a whole ecosystem of wearables and an internet of things. So we don’t need a screen because you already have three, or four, or five different screens around you, and so we just need to plug into them and connect to them. Everything is going to be interoperable in the future and so we made this design choice. What this allowed us to do was to focus even more of our research on solving this particular problem which is posture. If you are going to play in an ecosystem you need to solve one problem really really well. So that is our approach and that is how we will continue.

With the Lift you decided not to return to crowdfunding as you did with Lumoback but instead raised funds via pre-orders on your own site. What was the reason to not use crowdfunding the second time around?

We talked a lot about whether we should go back to Kickstarter. When we did Lumoback we didn’t have a website or a store and the whole e-commerce backend and so that is where Kickstarter made a lot of sense. But since we launched Lumoback we already had all the infrastructure in place so it made it really easy to do the pre-orders on the website and from that we were able to get a little more data about who was coming to our website.

With all this innovation in communication we are losing our ability to express ourselves and are forgetting how to express ourselves.

So where are you going next? You’ve tackled lower back, you are working on upper back and shoulders. Is there another place on the body you are targeting?

What gets me most excited is this huge white space in terms of mapping the body. There are a lot of neat problems that we can now start solving. What we are focusing on now are other specific biomechanical problems that there are very little solutions right now.

One of the things that me and my team are passionate about is communication and how we can help people better communicate. If you look at the technologies and the products in the past that really shaped who we are, and really fostered innovation, they were communication technologies: language, the printing press, email, telephone, text, and social media. We can now communicate quicker than ever. But all of these new formats of communicating very quickly are taking away from our ability to communicate in the real world. There is a lot of research that shows that 60% of communication is via the body and the other is in tone and language. With all this innovation in communication we are losing our ability to express ourselves and are forgetting how to express ourselves.

So what we want to do is to start to map that body language and try to help people communicate better: how do you stand there in a room and command it, how do you feel and act more confident and more attractive when you are on your first date – all of these different things where body language communication is really essential and it has started to be forgotten. We think it’s a very human thing to do and this will help us feel more human again.

This is where wearables can really help because wearables will allow us to communicate and work more naturally.

One of the things I noted about the Apple Watch was Apple’s emphasis on digital touch which suggests that they are placing emphasis on a wearable’s ability to enhance our non-verbal communication. I’ve heard this a lot from others in this space. 

Yes, you are really hitting on it. I really think that there is a whole lot here that we as a society haven’t yet focused on yet. A lot of our attention is taken away to these small screens in our pockets or on the wall and we need to have more face-to-face. This is where wearables can really help because wearables will allow us to communicate and work more naturally. All of this new technology is kind of taking us away from this and making us less human and that is why I am excited about this new paradigm of computing that can fight back some of that technology that is taking us away from who we really are.

I think there is a lot that we can do with haptics. It’s a language though that is quite new. There is no universal haptic language that people are accustomed to. You have to train people on the different vibration patterns. There is a lot there to ramp up on.

Tom Emrich

Tom Emrich

Sometimes called the “man from the future” Tom Emrich is a leading voice in wearable technology as an investor, community builder and influencer. His passion for this space is driven by his belief that wearable tech plays a critical role in our human evolution.