This Is What What I Work On

Geek Fitness, Misc, Personal Musings,

In the center of the circus tent, a couple twirls on a bar twenty feet off the ground in a spectacular and romantic “vertical tango”, one of the highlights of Teatro Zinzanni’s “Hacienda Holiday” show.

Meanwhile at one of the tables, my coworkers and I huddle over our phones, whispering excitedly.  The hostess comes by to scold us again, but we can’t help ourselves.  Our product has just been announced while we’re at its launch party, the night before it goes on sale to the public.  Watching the buzz ripple across the internet is as fascinating as this jaw-dropping dinner theater.

The next morning, a little groggy after the previous night’s revelry, we head to the Microsoft Store at the mall.  Despite the short notice, people are lined up out the door.

And there it is, our labor of love laid out in neat little boxes on the shelves.  When it’s revealed we’re developers on the product, several people actually ask us to autograph their boxes, which makes me feel silly but also vaguely important.

This is all a revelation for me.  Not only is this the first product I’ve ever shipped, it’s the first time in my budding two-year-long career that I can actually say what I work on!

And here it is:

microsoft-band-health

The Microsoft Band

Introducing the Microsoft Band, the product that tracked all the energy and sleepless nights we put into it.

This hybrid smartwatch and fitness tracker connects with your Android, iPhone, or Windows Phone, delivering notifications at a glance on its full-color touchscreen.  It counts your steps and monitors your heart rate throughout the day, tracks your sleep at night, and collects data through a bevy of other sensors, including UV, Galvanic Skin Response, and an on-board GPS .  When paired with a Windows Phone, you can interact with Cortana through the microphone.  There are also first party experiences for timers and alarms, tracking your runs and exercises, and a Guided Workout feature that will walk you through fitness programs and even count your reps.

It’s admittedly not the prettiest thing around, but I’ve grown so used to wearing it that I feel naked without it – indeed, the only time I take it off is to charge it when I’m showering (it lasts on average 48 hours between charges, more if you turn off daily heart rate and/or Bluetooth, less if you use GPS).  Part of me bemoans the existence of another piece of technology to be dependent on, but I have to admit it’s made me more productive and fit.  I’m more responsive to texts and calls, go the extra mile to reach my step goal, and work out daily for the first time in my life.

Check it out:

My Part

As part of the firmware team, I help write the code that runs on the band.  With the goal of better battery life, we built a lightweight, asynchronous “operating system” from scratch.  It’s crazy to think our small team went from an empty main function to the infrastructure we have now in just a year.

My area of ownership on the band is Bluetooth, though I’ve also done work on sensor drivers and communication protocols.  Getting the band to communicate reliably with all phone platforms has been an incredible challenge.  In the process, in addition to picking up Bluetooth domain knowledge, I’ve learned how a consumer product is developed end-to-end, from electrical engineering and manufacturing up to the apps and cloud.

microsoft-band-exploding-view

On the less technical side, one of the unexpected perks of the position was becoming a guinea pig to test the band and collect data for the algorithms team.  We first had to gain a basic level of fitness and familiarity with weightlifting and bodyweight movements, so I started doing Crossfit three times a week at work.

I spent several nights in a sleep lab, lying in a tangle of wires with tubes running out my nose.

sleep-study-wires

My puny wrists were photographed from every angle, measured with calipers, and modeled with 3D scanners in an attempt to get a proper fit for the small-sized band.

I ran weekly 5ks around campus, loaded down with a heart rate strap, up to four band prototypes, and several competitor devices.

I got sandpapered down in a closet, hooked up to an EKG, and wore a full mask while sprinting on a treadmill to measure my VO2 max.  Afterward, it looked like I’d been attacked by an octopus.

In short, I’ve turned into a fitness geek.  And I love it.

The entire time, I had to keep the project a secret, even from my closest friends and family.  Our team used to be part of Xbox Accessories, so I let everyone assume I was working on a controller.  I passed off my free personal trainer as a random team benefit and dodged questions about the band I wear for test.

The fact that the announcement and launch came as such a complete surprise means we pulled the secrecy off!

The Reaction

It’s a limited release, so the band sold out almost immediately and started going for up to double its $199 price tag on Ebay.  People drove hours to get it when it appeared in store.

I braced myself for the reaction of the internet – working this closely with a product means you know all its faults, and online communities can be vicious.  Critic reviews are mixed (from being called a “Wristable Supreme” to being accused of scratching a baby), but we start to see a surprising movement in the comments.  Those who actually use our band come to its defense with zeal.  With little fanfare and no marketing push, we find ourselves with a growing number of fanboys/girls.  Soon, my mom is just as addicted to the product as I am.

I’m humbled by the response – this little band has transformed my own life in so many ways, and I can only hope that it will help improve others’ as well.

microsoft-store bands-on-salegandalf-and-the-microsoft-band microsoft-band-banner

Updates

  • Web dashboard.
  • Bike tile.  Use the onboard GPS to track your bike ride.  Offers syncing with Strava.
  • Automatic Sleep Tracking.
  • Itty bitty keyboard so you can send full texts from your wrist – works amazingly well!
  • Golf tile to track your golf game at courses supported by TaylorMade.
  • SDK Release for third-party apps.
  • Custom guided workouts (which I used to create automatic tracking for Darebee workouts).
  • Microsoft Band 2 is out!  It’s prettier and more comfortable, with a curved screen, and also includes a Barometer for counting stairs climbed.

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