Digital New Year's Resolutions

By Lawrence Walsh  |  Posted 2007-12-17 Print this article Print

Accenture's personal coaching system whispers reminders in your ear whenever you stray from your objectives. Watch out, Big Brother is now sitting on your shoulder.

As the New Year approaches, we'll all be making our annual resolutions for self-improvement. Eat better. Exercise regularly. Lose weight. Quit smoking. Be more courteous. Refrain from using profanity. But let's face facts; few of us actually achieve our resolutions. In fact, according to "Living on the Up Beat," a publisher of self-help books, only 8 percent of Americans achieve their resolution goals and nearly half give up before the end of January.

For those of us who need a little help, our friends at Accenture's tech research labs have come up with something that's both ingenious and disturbing at the same time: A personal coaching system that—in theory—can assist users with everything from better managing business conversations to controlling diet to flirting at your local watering hole. As creator Dana Le describes it with a smile on her face, "It will make you smarter, funnier, healthier, sexier, productive and give you superhuman powers." (Alert the producers of "Heroes"; their monopoly is about to get broken.)

And what exactly is this high-tech marvel: An ordinary PDA/smartphone with a Bluetooth earpiece.

The current incarnation is rather simple and limited, designed for measuring conversation performance. Yes, conversation. Two parties wear Bluetooth headsets while speaking and the software measure the performance of the two individual's conversation and displays the results on the smartphone's screen in near real-time. On the surface, users can see whether they're dominating a conversation or being too passive. The system will prompt the users to speak up, slow their cadence and avoid interrupting the other speaker. The application was designed especially for businesspeople—particularly consultants—who are jobs depend on listening but they often have dominant personalities.

"The coaching application shows what you've done relative to the goals in the framework," Le explains.

Imagine this: A salesperson—people known to be good talkers—wears the coaching device on several customer calls. The performance is tracked and measured against his closing rate. The system can show that his closing rate either goes up or down relative to the deals closed or lost. Now that's a powerful motivator.

"This is relevant to workplace performance, but there are a number of consumer applications, too," Le says.

The system could become geographically aware by linking up with GPS signals. If the coach knows where you are, it can suggest new traits relative to your position, such as seeking a healthier walking route or better food choices. "If you walk into a McDonald's and you said you wanted to lose five pounds, the coach might remind you of that goal and suggest going down the street to get a healthy salad."

Accenture developed the system as a demonstration of how current technology can be applied to new users for both business and commercial purposes. The system is server-based, meaning that the smartphones are feeding the server with all the information for compilation and analysis, both for the real-time feedback and later review. Le says the system is a true demonstration of what's possible today with off-the-shelf technology.

What's more interesting is where this technology can go. Many retailers and wireless companies are experimenting with geo-aware devices that will automatically beam advertising and special offers to users based on their location. Google is plowing forward with plans to bring its search marketing to cell phones everywhere. Imagine the power of not only knowing where a user is but also what their personal goals are? All of a sudden, you go from having special offerings randomly being transmitted to coupons and enticements being sent based on health and career goals.

The technology raises a number of interesting issues relative to privacy. The conversation coach, for instance, records all sessions for later analysis. While that may seem innocuous in this day in age, 37 states have one-party consent and 11 states have two-party consent wiretapping statutes. This means a person using this system for personal performance is required by law to ask permission of the person—or persons—he's speaking with before engaging.

On the marketing side, how much personal information are consumers and users willing to part with in exchange for discounts and special promotions? Retailers, online merchants and carriers can track users online Web behaviors—to a certain degree—but having a system that broadcasts personal goals and desires to the rest of the world opens a whole new set of privacy issues. The point isn't lost of Le, who admits there are some privacy concerns. "While you might not expect everyone to do it, but if you're motivated, you may be motivated to share your info," she says.

These concerns are more prescient than present since the system will likely never be commercialized in its current form. Accenture develops such systems for demonstration purposes only. The personal coach is more to show executives and technology companies what's possible. It will be interesting to see how and where these neat ideas find their way into the marketplace. We'll deal with the privacy concerns and Big Brother's attack on Big Mac's then.

Lawrence M. Walsh is the editor of Baseline Magazine and regular columnist to Channel Insider. Share your thoughts on privacy concerns and emerging technologies at lawrence.walsh@ziffdavisenterprise.com.

Lawrence Walsh Lawrence Walsh is editor of Baseline magazine, overseeing print and online editorial content and the strategic direction of the publication. He is also a regular columnist for Ziff Davis Enterprise's Channel Insider. Mr. Walsh is well versed in IT technology and issues, and he is an expert in IT security technologies and policies, managed services, business intelligence software and IT reseller channels. An award-winning journalist, Mr. Walsh has served as editor of CMP Technology's VARBusiness and GovernmentVAR magazines, and TechTarget's Information Security magazine. He has written hundreds of articles, analyses and commentaries on the development of reseller businesses, the IT marketplace and managed services, as well as information security policy, strategy and technology. Prior to his magazine career, Mr. Walsh was a newspaper editor and reporter, having held editorial positions at the Boston Globe, MetroWest Daily News, Brockton Enterprise and Community Newspaper Company.

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