I ate abig breakfast. So if my scans are off, don’t sweat it, I tell myself. And this was immediately following a long, unhealthy weekend (a friend’s wedding). All of the excuses of the first world were available to me as I walked up the stairs in The Assembly, a women’s club in San Francisco, one that looks like it was once a place of worship but now hosts accomplished-looking laptop-clackers and has bottles of sweet-smelling face mist in the bathroom. This is where I would get my body shape and fat percentage measured by a company that has named itself Naked.
Naked Labs makes a full-length mirror lined with 3-D cameras that capture a 360-degree image of your body. There’s also a weight scale involved, something that the company’s cofounder and CEO, Farhad Farahbakhshian, calls the turntable (more on that later). Farahbakhshian, a former electrical engineer and certified Spin instructor, first introduced the Naked 3-D Fitness Tracker to the world two years ago and crowdfunded it through the company’s website. The initial launch was set for March 2017. Naked Labs missed that deadline by a great many months.
Now, several product iterations and more than $14 million in funding later, the Naked 3-D Fitness Tracker is shipping. The company’s funding round was led by Founders Fund, Peter Thiel’s firm, and included NEA and Lumia Capital. (Cyan Banister, another partner at Founders Fund, personally invested in Naked Labs.) “The product took much more capital, manpower, and time than we expected,” Farahbakhshian told me over the phone the day before I got my scans done. During that time, Intel’s RealSense cameras—which is what the Naked scanner relies on—were upgraded, which put the company in a holding pattern until it could build the product with the latest tech, he said.
The scanner now costs $1,395, a significant hike from the $499 the company listed it for at launch. But Naked Labs is wagering that (a) fitness freaks, (b) people looking for motivation to lose weight, and (c) customers who aren’t unnerved by daily 3-D scans of themselves will all pay to own the product. Its target customer has changed, Farahbakhshian said, from “people with a six-pack who want to get an eight-pack to people in the earlier stages of their fitness journey … Sure, there are power athletes who want to get that extra 1 percent, but we also see people who have felt powerless about their bodies for most of their lives.”
Farahbakhshian and Sam Winter, Naked Labs’ head research scientist, were waiting for me when I entered the room at the Assembly. Winter is a cognitive neuroscientist and sometimes triathlete who took the lead during the demo. She and Farahbakhshian suggested, both over the phone and in person, that the scan would work better if I stripped down to my underwear. I wore stretch pants and a long-sleeved shirt.
The mirror is nicely constructed—something I never thought I’d say about a mirror but feel obligated to note since it costs $1,395. It weighs 30 pounds, and with its frame measures 62.5 inches high and 12 inches wide. The back panel is plastic; its sides are powder-coated extruded aluminum. Three Intel RealSense 410 series cameras line the left side of the frame, along with a laser pointer (A laser pointer! In a mirror!) and a round indicator light.
Without warning, it began to spin me around, like a cat on a Roomba.
Winter fired up the 3-D Fitness Scanner, and the laser pointer shined a light onto the hardwood floor. She pulled the scale out from under the mirror and lined up the center of the scale with the laser's red dot. The scale, which charges via USB-C, is a disc of injection-molded plastic with a glass top. It wobbled slightly on the smooth hardwood when I stepped on it and widened my stance. The company says it also works well on carpet.
I tried to stand exactly as Naked Labs’ mobile app instructed me to: straight back, arms extended slightly from my sides, hands curled into fists. My hair was pulled up; Farahbakhshian and Winter said it’s a good idea to capture the neck and trapezius muscles as part of your body scan. And then I discovered why Farahbakhshian had been calling the scale the “turntable”: Without warning, it began to spin me around, like a cat on a Roomba. I laughed, which blurred my face on the first scan. By the third try, I had stopped moving and laughing. Maybe.
Being scanned and looking at the results are entirely different experiences. The scan itself takes only 15 seconds. Crunching the 2 gigabytes of visual data into a 2-megabyte file takes a few minutes. The processed image files are then shared from the mirror to the cloud, and then to the Naked Labs mobile app.
Animation by Naked Labs
All of the scans appear in grayscale in the app, making your body look as though it is made of liquid metal. Naked Labs also uses a “smoothing” technique on each body scan, which sounds like a culturally correct way of saying the images are Photoshopped. “Our goal in using grayscale was to take away any form of emotional attachment to the body model and make it as objective as possible,” Farahbakhshian told me. As T-1000 as the image may be, it was still undoubtedly me.
The extra data that appears onscreen beside your portrait, though, is what jumps out. Your weight is shown, but Farahbakhshian and Winter say they’re really trying to de-emphasize weight. At the top of the Key Stats pile is your body fat percentage, followed by your weight, your lean mass, and your fat mass. You can swipe through different parts of your body and get measurements for your waist, chest, each thigh, each calf. Do this day after day and you can look at comparative charts illustrating the changes to your body over time.
What’s interesting is that Naked Labs isn’t calculating body fat percentage using bioelectric impedance analysis, which many scales or other body composition devices do. And it’s obviously not doing hydrostatic testing, which would require you to be in water. It’s doing all of this algorithmically by comparing your images against a database of body shapes and DEXA scan data (DEXA stands for dual energy x-ray absorptiometry, and it measures bone density as well as body fat estimates). The Naked Labs approach is supposed to get better over time, which is the promise of a lot of quantified-self products: Feed us more data and we will, in turn, feed you the information you need to be a better you.
For Naked Labs, this ideally means getting you into better shape. The scanner is a consumer product, after all, which means the company isn’t attaching any medical claims to the device. It also hasn’t published any white papers or had its work peer-reviewed. But there are broader applications for 3-D body scans, ranging from less essential—retailers using the tech to sell you clothing suited to your shape—to the more critical, like tracking disease.
“If you look at all of the quantified-self technologies, a lot of it provides information that you have no idea what to do with. ‘Walk 10,000 steps …’ Well, what happens if it’s 9,000 or 11,000? There’s not a lot of information available around that,” says John Shepherd, an epidemiologist at the University of Hawaii who has spent 30 years researching quantitative imaging. “Body shape is so different in that if you can quantify it yourself at home with home-based systems, you can learn about risk factors for disease.”
Shepherd and his research team have been leading an NIH-funded study called Shape Up since 2015. The study is based on two premises: that that body shape is an important biomarker for overall health and that closely monitoring body shape could be more useful to people than just looking at numbers on a scale. They’ve used Naked Labs’ technology in their research, as well as 3-D scanners from Fit3D, Styku, TC Squared, and SciStream.
The Shape Up cohort currently includes 1,500 people, ranging from age 5 to 85, both male and female. Perhaps most interestingly, it also includes participants from five different ethnic backgrounds. Both Shepherd and the team at Naked Labs point out that most of the prediction algorithms for body fat and body muscle currently derive from data from white males.
But there could also be serious psychological pitfalls along the path to self-betterment and optimal health. Earlier this year, a researcher at Florida State University reported that participants in a 3-D body scanner study reported feeling dejected and dissatisfied with their body image after seeing their scans. The researcher, Jessica Ridgway, suggested that this might be explained by “self-discrepancy theory”—when there’s a dissonance between our actual selves and our ideal selves. 3-D scanners, essentially, magnify this.
Winter, Naked Labs’ neuroscientist, said she could think of one person in the company’s 25-person beta test group who she believed had a negative emotional reaction to her body scans. This person had “fallen off the wagon, hadn’t had a scan in a long time, and when she did look at it again, she said ‘Yeah, this does show what has happened the past couple months.’ It made her feel like she had been hiding what had happened in her body,” Winter said. But the overwhelming majority of the group found the scans to be productive, she insisted.
Shepherd said his team at the University of Hawaii has not yet partnered with any other researchers to examine the psychology aspect of body scans. “The primary reason is that we’re studying the utility right now, and we want to know if the utility is there before we recommend people using it in general,” he said.
Back at WIRED’s offices, I showed three colleagues the body scans that the Naked Labs team had emailed me. Two of my coworkers were horrified—not by my results (I don’t think) but by the whole concept of daily body scans. One was intrigued: “As someone who spends an inordinate amount of time comparing his body to sizing charts, this is kinda cool,” he wrote via Slack. Anecdata, no doubt. For some reason, I can’t seem to get my grayscale image out of my head.
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