Challenging My Biosensor Skepticism: What I Learned From Matt Buman

By Claire Topal

I never really thought much about whether it might be possible to get more and better sleep (beyond simply going to bed earlier and exercising more, or my son growing up, which I don’t want him to do too fast). Could biosensors actually help me do that?

I’ve heard about biosensors that monitor and measure sleep, but I’ve always been dubious. And it turns out that ASU’s Matt Buman has actual evidence for why wearable consumer biosensors for sleep still need work. Matt, along with colleague Eric Hekler, are doing a validation study on consumer wearable biosensors, with a focus on sleep and steps. I interviewed Matt recently for our HoneyBee Chronicles about his general thoughts about biosensors, what validation really means, and general findings to date.


For those who have difficulty sleeping at night but not necessarily a sleep disorder, Matt says over-the-counter devices “tend to overestimate how much sleep you’re actually getting, and for these contexts they tend to be less accurate tools.” But even if some inexpensive biosensor hairband or hydrating moisturizer can measure my sleep with total accuracy, do I really need an app to tell me I have a nuanced relationship with sleep?

I would have said no, but Matt challenged my skepticism by explaining to me how the feedback that could come from these sensors could be useful, especially if that information is easily acquired and doesn’t require an expensive, lengthy sleep study in a clinic. Feedback about an individual’s sleep could “provide helpful data points to a clinician who understands that sleep is an important risk factor for whatever condition they are looking at.” He noted heart disease, for which sleep is an important issue. This same promise holds for other physiological metrics, too.

The keyword is feedback – not just data.

I am the target audience for Matt and Eric, who are hoping that the information they uncover can inform the building of apps and devices that will encourage people—who are not already motivated—to introduce healthy changes into their behavior. I abandoned my Fitbit after a few months. I generally resist new technology. Mostly, I don’t like having to think about and manage another one more thing that shows me how I could and should be doing better. And I have been known to eat an entire bag of Milanos in one sitting.

I appreciate that whole point of this stuff is motivation and understanding, not guilt. But a negative lens is the only one I can see through without more meaningful information. What could change my mindset, however, is the ability to see holistic trajectories of my own information over time, which Matt said is where biosensors offer a great deal of promise—for influencing individual behavior, for increasing clinician and health system effectiveness and improving communication, and for prevention of and early intervention in disease progression.

My data “over time” is much more interesting to me than my step count today. But I only really want to see it if it’s also easy to understand what that information means. And as long as I don’t have to worry about recharging a device every day or taking it on and off. Or entering data or logging in and out. Did I mention I don’t like to wear bracelets or watches?

Matt said these preferences—or usability—is also something his study is looking at. The companies that make these consumer devices invest a lot of time and money into it, too.

After all, as Matt says, “if people don’t wear it, then it’s not accurate at all.”

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Written by Claire Topal