Trialing Philips’s DirectLife health program

By Venessa Wong of BusinessWeek’s Innovation and Design staff

In a recent meeting with Erik de Heus, CEO of New Wellness Solutions at Philips Electronics (PHG), the multinational health-care, consumer electronics, and lighting company headquartered in Amsterdam, we discussed a device I would try out—the new DirectLife health monitor. It is a white 1.2-inch square that detects acceleration to measure how far and fast you move and how many calories you burn—based on an online profile you set up with your height, weight, age, and gender using proprietary algorithms. Like an iPod, the device plugs into your computer and automatically updates your profile with data on the day’s activity using DirectLife software you download from the Internet. Sounds familiar? In June 2006, Nike (NKE) launched at retail Nike+, a kit that tracks activity and links users with an online community of runners. It also features Nike+ Coach: pre-set and customizable fitness programs. (Here’s BW’s story on Nike+.) Last year, San Francisco-based FitBit debuted a fitness tracker and just started shipping the product a few weeks ago.

Philips’ program includes online, human coaches who review profile information and give feedback and motivation via email to help users meet their health goals. Coaches set daily targets, which change based on adjustable goals, and the device gradually lights up as you get closer to meeting them. I had the unusual opportunity to meeting my coach, Jen Dowdeswell, for an interview when she was visiting New York from Amsterdam. Most users will not have face to face meetings with their coaches.

This fitness tool is part of Philips' expansion into health care. The DirectLife service is based on a subscription model: $99 for the device and the first four months of coaching, and $12.50 each month thereafter for consumers ($10 for corporate clients). The other difference, says de Heus, is that DirectLife is designed for people who are not already athletes but want to become more active. It will also be marketed in the B2B space to companies looking for alternatives to traditional fitness-related employee benefits, such as gym memberships. Philips has already tested it with a total of 25,000 people, including employees of 30 major companies. Users can wear the DirectLife monitor four ways: in a pocket, on a belt, on a necklace, or (for women) in a bra. It tracks acceleration in three directions, so it will underestimate calories burned during stationary exercises such as pilates. I have been wearing my DirectLife monitor for four days now, so I am half way through my eight-day assessment period, which sets a baseline for how active I was when starting the program. I will not be able to see my activity or have a fitness plan until the assessment period is complete.

Brief observations: The monitor weighs almost nothing so I barely notice it is on. It is low-maintenance but I’ve had to adjust my online profile almost every day, since my fickle wardrobe doesn’t allow me to wear it in pocket, belt, necklace or bra consistently—and the wrong setting leads to inaccurate readings. My goals are to feel more energized, to increase fitness, and, hopefully, fit into my old jeans a little easier. The challenge begins here. Stay tuned for updates.

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