WPI Student Creates a Top 10 App for the Pebble Smart Watch

Developer of the popular fitness application is also part of a WPI research team working on a smartwatch application that will improve care for patients with severe diabetes
April 14, 2014

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It knows when you're sleeping. It knows when you're awake—and when you're sitting, walking, or running.

Called On11, a new fitness and activity tracker available for the Pebble smart watch is currently its 7th most popular watch-face application for the device, with more than 16,000 users across North America, Europe, and Asia. The app was created by Qian He, a computer science doctoral student at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) who works with faculty researchers at WPI on projects that use mobile devices to help people lead healthier lives.

Pebble is a wristwatch digital platform that links wirelessly to the wearer’s smartphone. It made a big splash in 2013 after the most successful Kickstarter fundraising campaign to that point, and has since sold more than 400,000 units. Pebble encourages third-party developers like He to use the platform in creative ways. "I bought my Pebble as a present for myself," He said. "Over the break, I had some free time, and honestly I was a little bored. So, I just thought, 'I can do this.'"

A couple of hectic days spent coding for the Pebble platform followed, with He adapting some of the algorithms developed for his graduate work and creating new modules that use the smart watch’s accelerometer for tracking movement.

The name On11 is a reference to a joke He often heard in his native China when people described how they commute to work. "A lot of people take the bus or just walk, so they joke that instead of walking they are taking 'Bus 11,' or going 'On 11,' with the numerals representing their legs," He said.

Specifically, On11 tracks a person's physical activity during the day (including counting steps like a pedometer) and time spent sitting or sleeping. It integrates with a companion app that He wrote for Android smartphones that lets users enter their age, gender, height, and weight, and then formulate goals and receive progress reports—calories burned hour by hour, for example.

"I am surprised by how many people are using it so quickly," He said. "My overall goal is to help people use technology to become healthier, so this is really cool. I’m getting a lot of good feedback and will work to continually improve and add new features."

He is also part of an interdisciplinary research team at WPI developing a smartphone application that will help people with advanced diabetes and foot ulcers better manage their disease. The four-year project is funded by the National Science Foundation and is progressing in collaboration with diabetes and wound care specialists at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. The application, currently dubbed “Sugar,” integrates wirelessly with a personal glucose meter and scale to track and archive blood sugar levels and weight. It uses the phone’s camera to capture and analyze images of lesions known as foot ulcers, which are potentially dangerous complications that affect people with advanced diabetes and can lead to amputation.

On the Sugar project, He is working under the direction of Emmanuel Agu, PhD, associate professor of computer science at WPI. Also part of the Sugar team are Professor Diane Strong, PhD, and Associate Professor Bengisu Tulu, PhD, faculty members in WPI's School of Business. The image analysis algorithm for tracking foot ulcers is being developed by WPI doctoral student Lei Wang, under the direction of Peder Pedersen, PhD, professor of electrical and computer engineering.

"Our graduate students do outstanding work," said Strong, who is the principal investigator for the Sugar project. "Qian’s motivation to develop the Pebble application for consumers, in addition to his work on the Sugar project, is just the kind of entrepreneurial spirit we try to foster at WPI."