Another postcard from our sensor-strewn future… Can sensing technology improve and quantify yoga practice? The makers of a prototype device called the SmartMat, a yoga mat with embedded sensor technology, reckon it can. At the time of writing they’ve raised almost $175,000 (and counting) on the Indiegogo crowdfunding website, with the aim of shipping a finished product plus its companion app next July.
Specifically the US makers of SmartMat are embedding piezoresistive pressure sensors into a yoga mat, sandwiched between PVC top and bottom layers. On the surface the mat looks much like any standard yoga mat, and is apparently rollable and pretty much the same thickness. But used in conjunction with an app it will offer individual posture guidance, based on tracking where the user’s body is positioned on the mat, and how their body weight is distributed. Hence the smart moniker.
The SmartMat companion app is being designed to provide a real-time heat map of the user’s yoga practice and also to provide adjustment guidance visually or by audio. It will also track and score the user’s practice — quantifying how they have performed relative to their own ideal posture for each pose, and tracking the number of poses they have held per practice.
Posture alignment is tailored to the individual via a calibration process on set up. The software will initially be able to recognize 62 yoga postures, according to the makers. The app will then rate each posture on alignment, balance and pose, as well as generating an overall rating for the user so they can figure out how well they held each posture.
The mat will support one of three modes: either an at home fully guided mode, which lets the user choose and follow an entire class from within the app as well as receiving real-time feedback on their practice; a class assist mode which will provide visual or audio prompts while the mat is used during an instructed class; or a “zen mode” which just tracks and records postures without providing real-time feedback.
Now it’s worth stressing that this product — as most crowdfunding projects — remains a long way off being a commercial reality. It’s mostly concept and pitch at this point. It’s also a pretty ambitious concept, so it will be very interesting to see whether SmartMat’s makers pull this off. The technology will need to be portable yet durable and robust enough to handle rigorous exercise and frequent use. But also sensitive enough to provide accurate analysis and feedback tailored to various shapes and sizes of mobile bodies, doing all sorts of complex movements.
It’s a tall order — far taller than merely performing generic step tracking (and even step trackers are notoriously inaccurate). So I’m somewhat skeptical. But if they can pull all that off I’d certainly love to get my hands and feet on a smart yoga mat.
Founder Neyma Jahan tells TechCrunch it’s currently built four different prototypes of the mat testing different sensor technology. “It had to not only be durable and cost effective, but getting it to roll up has severely limited our options. We think we are settled on the winning technology,” he adds.
Asked what are the biggest technical challenges for shipping the product at this point, he says it’s likely to be on the software side. “There is some serious AI learning work we are doing in recognizing poses according to different body types. We are using Computer Vision, which I think is the same technology that Facebook uses for facial recognition, to recognize the heatmaps sent by the mat into specific poses based on placement and balance.
“To ‘learn’ say what is a ‘downward dog’ the process entails putting 20 people of different yoga abilities and body types on 20 SmartMats. The teacher will then call out a pose and our engineer will record those 20 people’s ‘version’ of a downward dog (with the teacher correcting them). By doing this we can establish a mean average of ‘what is a proper down dog’ across different body types, measurements and abilities. We are doing this for 62 poses to start.”
On the price front the mat is not cheap, as you’d expect given all the tech they’re going to need to stuff into it. An early bird Indiegogo price of $247 has sold out, so SmartMat now starts at $297. Retail price after the Indiegogo will be $447, according to the makers. Obviously that’s just for the mat itself. Users provide their own smartphone/tablet to access the guidance modes and view analytical data.