Apple event preview: Apple Watch, Apple Watch, maybe a MacBook

On Monday, Apple is holding a special event starting at 10 a.m. PT. Gigaom will be there to liveblog, and you can stream the video online from a Mac or iOS device.

Unfortunately, Apple doesn’t provide an agenda for its special events, so we had to come up with one.

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Apple Watch price and availability

If Apple wants us to buy these smartwatches it’s been playing up the past five months, it’s going to have to tell us how much they cost and when Apple fans can start lining up. Apple Watch will go on sale in April, so this event will be Apple’s best chance to convince the public its worth the price.

We know the least expensive Apple Watch will start at $349. But there are three separate Apple Watch lines: “Watch,” “Watch Sport,” and “Watch Edition.” Watch Edition is made out of 18-karat gold. And each watch has optional bands sold separately. So there’s a lot of range for different prices.

Speculation has centered on the Watch Sport being $349, with the stainless steel Watch coming in somewhere between $500 and $1000. The Watch Edition is the hardest to pinpoint, with guesses starting around $1,000 and going up to $10,000 or more.

Apple Watch. Photo by Tom Krazit/Gigaom

You might even be able to pre-order an Apple Watch. We’ll learn on Monday.

Apple Watch apps

Apple has been holding secretive sessions with third-party developers in what sounds like a internet-free bunker in Apple’s headquarters, according to reports from Bloomberg and 9to5Mac. Developers reportedly can’t bring in anything but a hard drive and can’t take anything out of the room, but in return, they have been able to fine-tune their apps on real Apple Watch prototype hardware.

The Bloomberg report named BMW, Facebook, Starwood Hotels and United Airlines as companies participating in the secret lab sessions, but 9to5Mac put the number at “hundreds of iOS developers.”  CEO Tim Cook has said Apple Watch will be able to start a car, and Starwood wants to use Apple Watch as a hotel room key, so to show off those features, Apple will probably pull a few of its partners up on stage.

Apple CEO Tim Cook introduces Apple Pay with the Apple Watch.  (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Apple CEO Tim Cook introduces Apple Pay with the Apple Watch. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

9to5Mac pointed to Electronic Arts, Uber, Dropbox, and Match.com as participants in secretive Apple Watch trials. Apple will also mention ApplePay and explain how it works on the watch and how many partners it’s signed up. Apple could also pull one of its HomeKit partners to explain how Apple Watch works in a smart home.

Apple’s also has at least two of its own apps, Fitness and Workout, that it will need to explain to the world, in addition to improvements in the Health app.

Jony Ive in a white box

One major question about Apple Watch is what’s underneath the hood. Apple has said the S1, a “system in package,” is powering the smartwatch. I don’t expect Apple to go too much into specs on Monday — maybe it will reveal the Apple Watch has 8GB of onboard storage — but we’ll certainly get a little more clarity than we had before.

Apple Watch Internals

More likely is that Apple will be making the case that even in the absence of a “killer app” or compelling reason to purchase an Apple Watch, there are enough uses and it’s a good enough timepiece that you want it anyway. That discussion will likely focus on features and functions, like its low-power mode and “heart rate glance,” a way to check heart rate on the watch quickly.

Most likely, Apple design guru Jony Ive will deliver that part of that story, through a video, since he doesn’t like public speaking. And as is Ive’s wont, that video will probably take place in a white box.

Here’s Ive’s video from a white box from last September, when he introduced the Apple Watch:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IwpGU3aUYao

iOS update

The new iPhone 6 is displayed during an Apple special event.  (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The new iPhone 6 is displayed during an Apple special event. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

It’s been almost confirmed that Apple Watch will require a companion iOS app for changing settings and controlling the watch. Since no such app is currently installed on iPhones, the next iOS update, 8.2, will likely have support for pairing with an Apple Watch, or the companion app could be accessible from the iTunes App Store.

Since Apple will have to push an update to Apple Watch users, it might give some stage time to other tweaks in iOS 8.2. However, the major iOS update will likely be revealed this June, at Apple’s developer’s conference.

One more thing?

If there’s a surprise Apple product announcement at Monday’s event, it’s unlikely to be the long-rumored bigger iPad or a new Apple TV.

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Based on recent rumors, there’s a chance that Apple’s radically redesigned 12-inch MacBook might be a topic of discussion on Monday. The device is tipped to use the new USB Type-C port, and could be even thinner than the current MacBook Air. It’s not a sure thing, but if you’re in the market for a new laptop, perhaps you should wait until after Monday’s announcements.

At the very least, a new MacBook would be a better surprise than a free U2 album.

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MindMaze’s headset brings your brainwaves into virtual reality

Swiss startup MindMaze is moving its technology from the medical field to the mainstream with a virtual reality headset that reads the wearer’s brain waves and uses the data to help them relax and play. The team announced $8.5 million in angel funding today, which it will use to help bring several products to market by the end of the year.

At the Game Developer Conference in San Francisco, I tried four prototypes that demonstrated how MindMaze’s technology works on different platforms. Inside a virtual reality headset MindMaze calls “NeuroGoggles,” I saw virtual fire spring from the tips of my fingers in an augmented reality mode. Plastic strips placed EKG sensors all over my head, allowing a TV next to me to livestream my brain activity.

A prototype version of MindMaze's NeuroGoggles.

A prototype version of MindMaze’s NeuroGoggles.

At another table, a sweatband studded with sensors measured my relaxation and allowed me to power up a glowing ball on the screen in front of me. I furrowed my brow to release its energy and battle a MindMaze employee in a reverse tug-of-war.

MindMaze also has a Kinect-like camera that tracked my movement in 3D. The company has plans for it similar to Leap Motion; a gamer could use it to integrate their motions into their virtual avatar, for example.

A prototype MindMaze  headband reads brainwaves and incorporates them into games.

A prototype MindMaze headband reads brainwaves and incorporates them into games.

MindMaze got started by using its 3D tracking technology to help stroke, amputation and spinal cord and brain injury patients. There’s an episode of “House” where Hugh Laurie discovers a man’s anger stems from pain in his amputated hand. He alleviates the man’s pain with a box split down the middle by a mirror. One arm goes on each side of the mirror, and when the patient moves their intact hand it appears their other hand is moving too.

Studies have not found conclusive evidence that mirror boxes actually alleviates phantom limb pain, but it has been shown to help stroke patients regain control of their limbs. MindMaze replicates the same treatment with a virtual limb. The patient moves their intact hand, and a mirrored virtual hand can perform the same action.

A rendering of the proposed design for MindMaze's NeuroGoggles.

A rendering of the proposed design for MindMaze’s NeuroGoggles.

When MindMaze begins selling its devices to consumers, CEO and founder Tej Tadi said he sees people using it both to manage their mental health and for gaming.

“The first thing we want to do short term is enable a whole new gaming platform,” Tadi said. “It’s more enriched than real life.”

In the tug-of-war, it was nearly impossible to relax and power up because journalists don’t relax and the room was buzzing with people. I’ve tried the Muse headband in the past and wasn’t particularly impressed. Feedback reminding me I’m not doing well at relaxing doesn’t exactly make me more relaxed.

A rendering of the proposed design for MindMaze's motion capturing camera.

A rendering of the proposed design for MindMaze’s motion capturing camera.

But I like the idea of relaxing inside virtual reality. It is especially suited to blocking out the world and putting you in a space where it is possible to be calm. MindMaze’s prototype goggles were decently made and had the unusual feature of displaying 180 degrees of your view in virtual reality and the other 180 in augmented reality, making it easy to switch back and forth between the virtual and real worlds. The company has plans to make its headset and 3D camera smaller and wireless, and both are meant to look a whole lot spiffier before their consumer release. I’m interested to see what other applications MindMaze dreams up.

Apple HealthKit is already finding a home in U.S. hospitals

HealthKit might not get as much attention as, say, Apple Watch, but it could end up being more important to Apple’s bottom line in the future. According to a new report in Reuters, the healthcare establishment and hospitals have already started to incorporate HealthKit into their healthcare services: 14 of the 23 hospitals Reuters got in touch with said they had already started pilot programs with HealthKit, or were planning to start one.

The HealthKit service is preinstalled on all iPhones running iOS 8, and essentially works as a data repository. Information from step trackers, connected scales, smart blood pressure monitors and other medical gadgets can be fed into HealthKit. Apple’s software then organizes that data and displays it in a useful way on an iOS device in the Health app. According to Reuters, that information can, with the patient’s permission, be exported directly into the kinds of electronic medical records that doctors use. If the FDA was to decide to regulate HealthKit as a medical device, something that Apple has worried about, it would likely be the export-to-doctors function that would come under scrutiny.

One story in the report surrounds a New Orleans hospital which is treating high-risk patients with blood pressure issues by remotely monitoring them and providing doctors with regular readings automatically sent through HealthKit.

Apple Health iOS 8

As Reuters points out, the American healthcare market is worth over $3 trillion per year, a figure big enough to pique Apple’s interest despite the fact it registered $18 billion in profit last quarter. As America gets older, if the iPhone (or the Apple Watch) becomes the device your doctor says works best with your health regimen, that’s a powerful reason for a consumer to choose an Apple device. But Apple doesn’t have the mobile healthcare market to itself: Google has developed similar software, Google Fit, and Samsung is taking health seriously, too. In the next few years, these three major smartphone companies will jockey to get their software into hospitals and doctors’ hands.

How scientists are racing to diagnose brain injuries in football

By the time retired Chicago Bears star Dave Duerson took his own life in February of 2011, he’d spent months complaining about headaches, blurred vision, and deteriorating memory. The last line of his suicide note read, “Please, see that my brain is given to the NFL’s brain bank.” He then shot himself in the chest, presumably to keep his brain sufficiently in tact for future study.

A few months later, researchers at Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy confirmed what Duerson had suspected – that he had the telltale signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disease that at that point a handful of retired NFL players had also been diagnosed with.

Fast forward four years and while significant off-the-field coverage of pro football revolves around domestic violence, countless studies of deceased and retired NFL players – as well as current and former players of several high contact sports, including soccer and hockey – continue to pile up showing that the continuous hits to the head many athletes take have a serious compound effect. In the week prior to Sunday’s Super Bowl, Seattle Seahawks defensive lineman Michael Bennett was not shy about calling out NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell about the way the league has treated players who have dealt with health issues as the result of CTE and other injuries.

“The consensus is that getting hit in the head over and over again or really hard is bad for your brain, and with new types of tests we find new types of abnormalities that we didn’t know existed,” Chris Nowinski, a former wrestler and cofounder of the Sports Legacy Institute in Boston, told me. “The research is exploding. There’s been more money dedicated to concussion research in the last two or three years than in the history of time. There is a new study every week.”

In both sets of photographs, above, the brain tissue has been immunostained for tau protein, which appears as a dark brown color. Tau immunostained sections of medial temporal lobe from 3 individuals.

In both sets of photographs, above, the brain tissue has been immunostained for tau protein, which appears as a dark brown color. Tau immunostained sections of medial temporal lobe from 3 individuals.

Because no two concussions are exactly alike, and many neurological effects are difficult to see right after a hit, there’s no one diagnostic tool that catches all concussions – though one eye-tracking technique may catch up to 90 percent. “An immediate, 100 percent accurate concussion test is elusive and will be very, very difficult,” Nowinski said.

Instead, much of the cutting-edge imaging research focuses on finding biomarkers in the brain that reveal abnormalities, and then sorting out what those abnormalities will likely mean functionally for an individual down the road. One key here is being able to do this in vivo, while people are still alive and treatment is still possible, as CTE is currently only diagnosed post mortem. (The National Institutes of Health is funding a big study out of Boston University, DETECT, to do just that.)

Shock waves

“I would argue that there is never going to be a single tool that will be effective across all concussions, because each concussion has a different trajectory based on the risk factors of the individual, the kind of hit taken, etc.,” Dr. Anthony Kontos, a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh’s Sports Medicine Concussion Program, said.

“The field right now from a neuroimaging perspective is driven by a couple things. One is that we want to see if we can match up what we see clinically and functionally with what we see in neuroimaging. And number two is can we do this in a cost-effective, accurate, and potentially portable way.”

While fMRI and PET scans tend to be the go-to imaging tools in concussion research, Kontos and colleagues have been taking a different approach, something called functional near-infrared spectroscopy. Because the technique involves shining light that penetrates 5 to 8 millimeters into the cortical area of the brain to look at blood flow, it’s noninvasive, less expensive than big scanners like MRI, and portable.

“What we found is the concussed folks will be essentially less efficient,” Kontos said. “They were worse on the performance of the cognitive tests, with slower reaction times and processing speeds, worse on memory recall, and in addition their brain activation wasn’t the same as controls. Those individuals who were concussed weren’t activating the same parts of the brain in the same way.”

The findings sit atop a huge heap of results reaching similar conclusions. In the past year alone, researchers have reported on:

The damage already done

Beyond imaging advances and neurological discoveries, researchers are finding signs of CTE in many former athletes. In one recent study, 76 of 79 deceased NFL players had the brain disease, according to Frontline’s Concussion Watch. Meanwhile, significant cognitive deficits are being found in still living retired NFL players, who may or may not benefit from a class-action lawsuit that would offer medical exams for retired NFL players, monetary awards when certain brain diseases are diagnosed, and greater education around safety.

Football players go on the offense

Given football is not the only high-contact sport where former athletes have been found to have CTE (think wrestling, hockey, and soccer), I asked Nowinski whether he thought the sport is being unfairly singled out.

“Football is not getting a bad rap – it’s getting a well-deserved rap,” he said. “It’s the only sport that encourages hitting kids in the head before 10 years old on purpose. And in the US you’ve got 1 in 8 boys playing, so it’s a huge issue and it’s facing an existential crisis because the world has moved past football in the sense that we all agree it’s a bad idea to hit kids on the head on purpose.”

From a practical standpoint, many contact sport governing bodies – at all levels of play – are being forced to grapple with the question of when to take someone who’s been hit in the head out and when to let that person back in again. “Return to play will be partially controlled by how much we feel people can lose before people feel comfortable,” Nowinski said.

While he plans to watch the Super Bowl, Nowinski clarifies that it’s mainly for research: “I’m OK with grown men playing a risky game as a job if they’re compensated appropriately and have a full understanding of the risks. I’m never going to tell a fireman he can’t go into a burning building. So I can enjoy watching it, but I don’t enjoy watching a bad sideline test and a guy getting put back in, and I don’t like the fact that to get there these guys all played as children for 10 years for free.”

“I think we do a lot better job of that today than we did 5 or 10 years ago,” added Kontos, who has played soccer his whole life and loves to watch pretty much all sports, including football’s main event. “But there’s always room for improvement.”

Why doctors are excited about mobile blood pressure monitoring

In the first decade of this century, deaths attributed to high blood pressure have increased nearly 40 percent – roughly one in three adults in the US now suffer from the condition, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Also called hypertension, high blood pressure has a strong comorbid association with diabetes, meaning if you have one you’re far more likely to have the other. Complications are wide-ranging, including coronary artery disease, myocardial infarction, stroke, congestive heart failure, and peripheral vascular disease. There’s a reason it’s called the “silent killer.”

“We need to get on top of this now,” Dr. Elliott Antman, an associate dean of clinical and translational research at Harvard Medical School and president of the American Heart Association, recently told HealthDay.

An obvious place to start: make sure that blood pressure monitoring, and thus diagnosis, is accurate, but a large new study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine is calling into question whether we’re going about it the best way possible.

In a review of 19,309 abstracts and 1171 articles, researchers from the US Preventive Service Task Force found that “ambulatory” monitors worn during a person’s daily routine were as much as 40 percent more accurate predicting heart attacks, strokes, and heart disease than single checks taken at the doc’s.

There are a few reasons. For one, there is quite simply more data being gathered when a cuff worn around one’s arm checks blood pressure at regular intervals throughout a day. But this kind of mobile monitoring also helps catch two types of people who are easily misdiagnosed – those with “white coat” syndrome, who get nervous in doctor’s offices and experience artificially high blood pressure at precisely the time of monitoring (a condition that may affect as many as 30 percent of people thought to be hypertensive), and those who react oppositely, with lower readings either because they take their meds before going to the doctor’s or because they experience more stress in their home environment.

There are also those who are near the threshold of high blood pressure and difficult to diagnose, as well as those with a single bad test – outliers that can result in unnecessary medicating.

“[Ambulatory monitoring] is going to refine the initial screen performed in a doctor’s office, and give you more accurate results,” said Margaret Piper, a senior investigator at the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research and lead author of the review.

If Piper’s task force recommendation to switch to ambulatory monitoring becomes final, health insurers would have to pay for it because preventive procedures that are approved by the task force must be covered under the Affordable Care Act.

Another recent study in the same journal found that blood pressure-lowering drugs help people with even mild hypertension, lending further support to the notion that catching subtleties and getting more accurate readings is important. (In fact, people whose high blood pressure was spotted early and medicated were able to lower their risk of stroke by almost 30 percent, heart-related death by 25 percent, and heart failure by 20 percent.)

Microsoft Health app

Unfortunately, the ambulatory monitoring recommendation comes at a tricky time – when there are more home monitoring apps than ever, but they appear to be inferior to the ones used in doctor’s offices.

“This technology is really in its nascent stages, and it’s not quite ready for prime time,” Dr. Nilay Kumar, lead author of a new study reviewing 107 apps available on the Google Play store and Apple iTunes, told Reuters Health.

Kumar, who “was surprised” to find that these apps have been downloaded as many as 2.4 million times, added: “It’s not ready for clinical use. For now, we need to be careful that we are not using things that are inaccurate and could be potentially dangerous.”

Piper stressed that the ambulatory devices her task force is recommending are not the same – they still involve wearing an arm cuff as opposed to simply pressing one’s finger on a smartphone screen – while the newest ones can now wirelessly connect to smartphones to easily track the readings. They also take readings at regular intervals, as opposed to whenever a user thinks of it.

“We had data for self-monitoring that seemed to follow the same pattern as ambulatory monitoring, but there were far fewer studies, so we didn’t feel we had enough data to draw conclusions,” she said.

If you’re set on buying your own monitor, the American Heart Association recommends cuff-style upper-arm monitors that has been tested and approved and that fits, while it specifically recommends against finger and wrist monitors. The Dabl Education Trust has compiled a list of validated monitors.

Scientists are trying to model our mental health based on our tweets

During the holiday season, ideally filled with family, food, and festivities, the topic of depression is often sidelined; even more of a taboo subject than usual. But research suggests it is one of our most persistent blights, ranked ninth in the world behind the major killers, such as heart disease, stroke, and HIV, according to Nature.

Now researchers from multiple disciplines, in both the public and private sectors, are working on various algorithms and approaches to measure a range of mental health trends via large volumes of online activity. Issues such as depression and seasonal anxiety disorder aren’t the first health trends to be investigated in this way – think Google Flu Trends, for instance – but they represent an entry point for researchers, one that most recently has been hailed by a team at Johns Hopkins reporting on techniques that could play a key role in measuring mental health metrics.

“This is like a microscope or a telescope, but it’s something new: a macroscope,” Nova Spivack, CEO of LA-based Bottlenose, told me. Spivack said his company currently measures 72 billion messages in real time every day on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, search engines, as well as on TV and the radio in the US, Canada, UK, and the Middle East. “Inhale as much as you can and allow the trends to bubble up,” he said; from there his team uses tools like topic detection and sentiment analysis to make sense of data for global 1000 companies both historically and in real time.

Depression analysis on social media Nova Spivack

Spivack is a fervent believer in the power of big data – “It’s amazing that you can do that, literally measure billions of opinions; it’s a feedback loop that never existed, and it’s going to transform society,” he said – but the science itself is still in its infancy, and tapping platforms like Twitter to tell us about trends has its limitations, some obvious and others less so.

One of the inherent problems with relying on the online expressions of social media users is that, while massive amounts of data can help reduce statistical bias, the demographic itself becomes overrepresented. “You can get all these rare phenomena, but you suffer from this other one that social media alone doesn’t capture to really understand the picture of mental health,” Johns Hopkins computer scientist Glen Coppersmith, who is part of the team working on measuring mental health trends via Twitter, told me.

Even if Twitter users perfectly represented the global population, researchers scanning for tweets that contain clues to mental health issues are still only getting data from those willing to tweet about them. Still, even though offline introverts escape notice, much is being gleaned from that data streaming in, and Spivack stresses that a lot of times the statistical anomalies tell us things we didn’t even know we were looking for.

At Johns Hopkins, researcher are drumming up new numbers on the prevalence of certain mental health illnesses by looking for direct tweets mentioning diagnoses as well as by looking for language cues directly linked to certain disorders. The idea is to share their findings with public health officials to improve on the often slow and costly method of collecting data through surveys – though Coppersmith stresses that because it is data in aggregate that is of interest, no users are singled out or identified in any way.

“There’s a whole class of analyses that could be done that hasn’t been done,” he said. “The real key is we now have a lot of data that’s relevant, so the next thing we’re looking at is not a single diagnosis but being able to look at multiple diagnoses and multiple people who have been treated as separate diagnoses and look at how the language of these may be related. I’m very excited about it.”

Many other topics are also being explored on Twitter and beyond. Researchers are looking at suicidal thoughts, religious beliefs, global mood patterns, and more, and Twitter now sells its data to companies interested in niche trends, and turns a pretty profit in the process.

But for researchers like Coppersmith, the larger goal is to better our understanding of ourselves in the aggregate, and ideally improve our social infrastructures, too. And while we’re just beginning to explore the power of the “macroscope,” as Spivack puts it, Coppersmith says mental health provides a unique and often personal opportunity: “Mental Health has touched each one of our lives in some way: a friend, a relative, a colleague, or one’s self. When we saw the opportunity to try to make a dent in understanding some of these problems, it wasn’t hard to convince others to help out.”

Featured image courtesy of Thinkstock/Chalabala

Working out while wearing Oculus Rift could soon be a thing

I was at the gym the other day thinking about how fun virtual reality would be on a treadmill. My gym’s treadmills have screens, and you can pull up videos of different runs around the world. There are trails leading through forests and up the sides of volcanoes. It’s pretty fun for the three minutes before I remember I can turn on “Cupcake Wars.”

But what if that run was available in true virtual reality? With a headset on, you could look around or even choose between two different paths. It would feel more like actual virtual tourism than staring at a screen on a treadmill.

Virtual reality probably isn’t coming to a treadmill near you anytime soon (I can barely walk while wearing a headset, let alone run), but it is being looked at for other types of working out. Runtastic, which makes an exercise app, released a 7-minute workout for Oculus Rift today. A virtual trainer leads you through different exercises, which are tracked and then reported back to you.

It’s just a proof of concept at this point, as Rift isn’t widely available yet. The headset is also a bit bulky, and its foam face cushion collects sweat like crazy. If you’ve ever worn ski goggles you know the sensation: a clammy moistness that makes you hesitant to lend the goggles to anyone else ever again. It’s a bit disgusting.

But like skiing down a mountain, virtual reality is immersive enough that it has a way of making you disregard minor discomforts. That’s pretty fantastic for exercising; who doesn’t want to forget about the burn in their abs?

Runtastic’s app also hints at virtual reality’s social potential. I like the idea of the yoga classes at my gym, but that means traveling there two extra days a week. Instead, I could join a class in virtual reality. There’s still the social pressure to attend and an expert to critique my form, but I never have to leave my living room.

Virtual reality headsets will, of course, get better. They will get lighter and sleeker. Maybe someday they’ll look like swim goggles, getting rid of that sweaty foam feeling altogether. What’s not in question is that virtual reality can make working out more fun.

Now, who is up for some virtual jazzercise?

How Google’s latest moonshot could change human health

Google is determining what exactly it means to be a healthy human being, which could redefine health as a spectrum instead of black and white. It is developing a wristband and nanoparticles that could detect the first signs of illness.