Harnessing the power of feedback loops

I enjoyed Thomas Goetz's article in the June issue of Wired about companies who are designing technologies that incorporate feedback loops to change human behavior. The two most interesting companies that Thomas wrote about are Vitality and GreenGoose.

Vitality makes a cap for prescription pill bottles called the GlowCap:

The device is simple. When a patient is prescribed a medication, a physician or pharmacy provides a GlowCap to go on top of the pill bottle, replacing the standard childproof cap. The GlowCap, which comes with a plug-in unit that Rose calls a night-light, connects to a database that knows the patient's particular dosage directions—say, two pills twice a day, at 8 am and 8 pm. When 8 am rolls around, the GlowCap and the night-light start to pulse with a gentle orange light. A few minutes later, if the pill bottle isn't opened, the light pulses a little more urgently. A few minutes more and the device begins to play a melody—not an annoying buzz or alarm. Finally, if more time elapses (the intervals are adjustable), the patient receives a text message or a recorded phone call reminding them to pop the GlowCap. The overall effect is a persistent feedback loop urging patients to take their meds.

These nudges have proven to be remarkably effective. In 2010, Partners HealthCare and Harvard Medical School conducted a study that gave GlowCaps to 140 patients on hypertension medications; a control group received nonactivated GlowCap bottles. After three months, adherence in the control group had declined to less than 50 percent, the same dismal rate observed in countless other studies. But patients using GlowCaps did remarkably better: More than 80 percent of them took their pills, a rate that lasted for the duration of the six-month study.

GreenGoose is making sensors that turn boring daily chores into a game:

The GreenGoose concept starts with a sheet of stickers, each containing an accelerometer labeled with a cartoon icon of a familiar household object—a refrigerator handle, a water bottle, a toothbrush, a yard rake. But the secret to GreenGoose isn't the accelerometer; that's a less-than-a-dollar commodity. The key is the algorithm that Krejcarek's team has coded into the chip next to the accelerometer that recognizes a particular pattern of movement. For a toothbrush, it's a rapid back-and-forth that indicates somebody is brushing their teeth. For a water bottle, it's a simple up-and-down that correlates with somebody taking a sip. And so on. In essence, GreenGoose uses sensors to spray feedback loops like atomized perfume throughout our daily life—in our homes, our vehicles, our backyards. "Sensors are these little eyes and ears on whatever we do and how we do it," Krejcarek says. "If a behavior has a pattern, if we can calculate a desired duration and intensity, we can create a system that rewards that behavior and encourages more of it." Thus the first component of a feedback loop: data gathering.

Then comes the second step: relevance. GreenGoose converts the data into points, with a certain amount of action translating into a certain number of points, say 30 seconds of teeth brushing for two points. And here Krejcarek gets noticeably excited. "The points can be used in games on our website," he says. "Think FarmVille but with live data."

A fascinating read. I hope Thomas writes a book about feedback loops.

Harnessing the Power of Feedback Loops