Posts tagged with "Fast Company"

Heads up! Mr. Potato Head is getting a rebrand for the 21st-century

Febraury 26, 2021

Next fall, you’re cordially invited to Mr. Potato Head’s wedding. He’s marrying his partner of many years, another Potato Head. And they promise it’s going to be the party of the year, with—you guessed it—plenty of spuds on the menu.

The Pawtucket, Rhode Island-based toy giant Hasbro is rebranding its iconic Mr. Potato Head toy by dropping the “Mr.” from the name, reports Fast Company.

On the surface, it may seem like a subtle shift, but it is designed to break away from traditional gender norms, particularly when it comes to creating Potato Head families—which is how toddlers frequently play with the toy, according to Hasbro’s research. But when the new brand is unveiled, kids will have a blank slate to create same-sex families or single-parent families. It’s a prime example of the way heritage toy brands are evolving to stay relevant in the 21st century.

Hasbro launched Mr. Potato Head in 1952 for the princely sum of $0.98 (or $10 in today’s currency). Back then, families had to supply their own real potato, which kids could then turn into little people thanks to plastic pieces in the box, such as hands, feet, and eyes, and accessories such as a pipe, and felt pieces that were meant to be mustaches.

The following year, Mrs. Potato Head launched with feminized accessories, such as hair bows and red high heels. The Potato Heads were the first toys to be marketed directly to kids, that strategy worked like gangbusters: More than one million kits were sold in the first year.

The enduring success of Potato Head comes down to its sheer silliness, Kimberly Boyd, an SVP and GM at Hasbro who works on the Potato Head brand told Fast Company. The idea of a potato person with an enormous mustache is universally hilarious, particularly to the sensibilities of small children. But after that initial laugh, Boyd says that kids continue to engage with the toy because it provides a canvas onto which they can project their own experiences.

“The sweet spot for the toy is two to three years old,” she says. “Kids like dressing up the toy, then playing out scenarios from their life. This often takes the form of creating little potato families, because they’re learning what it means to be in a family.”

Over the decades, the Potato Head brand has explicitly played into this tendency to create families. It has sold Mr. Potato Head family sets, with a male and a female character, along with smaller potato children. In 2012, Hasbro celebrated the 60th wedding anniversary of Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head with a boxed set featuring the couple.

But eight years later, the brand wants to stop leaning so heavily into this traditional family structure. “Culture has evolved,” she says. “Kids want to be able to represent their own experiences. The way the brand currently exists—with the “Mr.” and “Mrs.”—is limiting when it comes to both gender identity and family structure.”

The brand’s solution is to drop the gendered honorific title altogether. This means the toys don’t impose a fixed notion of gender identity or expression, freeing kids to do whatever feels most natural to them: A girl potato might want to wear pants and a boy potato might wear earrings.

Hasbro also will sell boxed sets that don’t present a normative family structure. This approach is clever because it allows kids to project their own ideas about gender, sexuality, and family onto the toy, without necessarily offending parents that have more conservative notions about family.

Research contact: @FastCompany

A breakthrough face mask detects COVID

January 28, 2021

The greatest challenge of containing COVID-19 continues to be that a carrier can be contagious for two days before developing symptoms. It’s impossible to know whether you or those around you are sick at any given moment. By the time it’s become apparent, one infection could have spread to dozens of people.

But what if there were a way to monitor for the presence of COVID-19 where people go, all day, every day? And not by contact tracing in some smartphone app, but through an actual mechanism that can detect the presence of the coronavirus?

That’s just what Jesse Jokerst, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, San Diego, is developing, according to a report by Fast Company. Working under a $1.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, his lab is testing what he calls a “smoke detector” for COVID-19.

The mechanism is a small blister pack—yes, like the disposable casing that holds pills—that attaches to any mask. It features a bit of tubing that collects the tiny droplets in your breath all day.

“Think about breathing on a cold windowpane,” Jokerst says. “Amplify that for eight hours, scrape it off, and put it in a tube. You’d be surprised how much liquid there is.”

After a day of collection, you squeeze the blister pack to crack it. The droplets mix with a pool of solution. That solution can detect a biomarker from COVID-19 (not the virus itself, but a protein that’s known to be present alongside it in saliva). If the biomarker is detected, the clear solution turns blue instantly. If it’s not, it turns scarlet. There’s nothing vague about the notification at all, and there is no wait time for your results.

The blister packs can be produced for a few cents apiece, meaning that they could literally be disposed of and worn anew every single day. But Jokerst doesn’t imagine the blister pack being used as a personal test so much as a tool for area surveillance.

“The value of the wearable is it’s also monitoring your environment,” Jokerst explains. “If you spit in a tube, you’re only testing yourself. If you’re breathing in and out . . . you sample not only your own saliva but your environment, too.”

In other words, Jokerst wants to turn people into walking COVID-19 detectors who, yes, could activate the strip if they are sick, but could activate the strip simply if they are breathing and walking through an infected environment. That means you wouldn’t use this strip at home. Instead, it could be worn by groups stuck together in confined places, like people in prison and essential workers in grocery stores. Hence the smoke alarm analogy.

“In a prison, every [guard] shift could do surveillance,” Jokerst says, noting they might spot COVID-19’s presence in various wards to isolate spread. “At the end of every shift they test . . . that sets the stage to stop an outbreak before it gets going.”

Unfortunately, the promising research is still being validated. By the time the paper is published later this year, Jokerst believes that the U.S. may have vaccinations under control, rendering his product (which he imagines would be produced by some yet-to-be-determined commercial partner) a bit less useful for our nation, notes Fast Company.

However, he notes that in the developing world, some projections have shown that COVID-19 may linger into 2023. And on top of that, Jokerst says that the biomarker he’s detecting has been part of the original SARS and MERS viruses as well. So while this mask-worn blister pack might not do much to quell the spread of SARS-CoV-2, Jokerst believes it is likely to work for “the next coronavirus.”

Research contact: @FastCompany

Wall-to-wall tomatoes: A state-of-the-art indoor farm is transforming Appalachia into an agricultural hub

January 20, 2021

Inside a sprawling new indoor farm near the small eastern Kentucky town of Morehead, a harvest of tomatoes—the first ever at the facility—is being readied to ship to grocery stores across the country, Fast Company reports.

For AppHarvest, the startup running the farm, it represents a key step in proving that the hydroponic model of agriculture—farming without soil—is sustainable and offers a way to bring new jobs to a region that has struggled as the coal industry collapsed.

The 2.76-million-square-foot facility, designed to grow as many as 45 million pounds of tomatoes in a year, uses far less land and water than traditional farms. (All of the water it does use is filtered from rainwater captured and stored on-site.)

It doesn’t require pesticides. Unlike some other indoor farms that use LEDs calibrated to make plants grow, it relies mostly on natural light, saving energy. And while tomatoes are often trucked to the Midwest and East Coast from California or Mexico, the central location in Kentucky can also shrink the carbon footprint of delivery.

“Our big picture thesis is that most all fruit and vegetable production at scale, globally, will end up being grown in a controlled environment,” founder and CEO Jonathan Webb told Fast Company. Agriculture faces multiple challenges. Climate change is leading to more drought, flooding, and extreme heat. At the same time, as the global population grows, demand is quickly growing. (

Soil is another challenge, as agriculture is now depleting fertile topsoil so quickly that it could be gone in 60 years. “When we talk about other extractive industries, the one thing we’re not talking enough about is what we’re extracting from our soils, and how badly we’re degrading those soils to a point to whether or not they’re fertile,” he says.

The startup spent 2020 building the facility as COVID-19 spread. “Six hundred semi-trucks of materials is what it took to build it out,” says Webb. “And we were shipping those materials around the world during a pandemic.” Because the company works in agriculture, it was allowed to keep working with suppliers even as various shutdowns happened. The first tomatoes were planted in late October and early November.

As the company begins to ship its first deliveries to grocery stores, it’s simultaneously building two more farms: another 60-plus-acre facility near Richmond, Kentucky, and a 15-acre indoor farm for leafy greens in the small city of Berea. It aims to add a dozen indoor farms in Kentucky and other parts of Appalachia by 2025.

Research contact: @FastCompany

Zoom, Peacock, and TikTok lead the fastest-growing brands of 2020

December11, 2020

While the pandemic has been anything but good for most U.S. businesses (think: restaurants, bars, air carriers, movie theaters, and gyms), some brand names actually saw rapid growth during the shutdown; as Americans relied on digital and vehicular delivery of food, prescriptions, cleaning products and masks, pet products, entertainment, and even business and casual meetings.

Now, Morning Consult has published its annual “Fastest Growing Brands” list, which it describes as “the definitive measure of brand growth for both emerging and established brands, showcasing a wide range of companies and products that have accelerated their consumer appeal and awareness in 2020.”

On this year’s list, the top spot was claimed by digital meetings provider  Zoom, Fast Company reports. No need to guess why, right? Surprisingly NBCUniversal’s fledgling video streaming service took the number-two spot. Less of a surprise was the brand that claimed the number-three honors: TikTok, a leading destination for short-form mobile video.

Morning Consult says that all the brands on this year’s list were shaped by changing consumer behavior resulting from the pandemic: “Nearly every brand that occupies a spot on the Fastest Growing Brands list is meaningfully connected to pandemic-related behavior, from at-home entertainment to cleaning products to pharmaceutical companies.”

The top 10 on Morning Consult’s fastest-growing brands of 2020 are:

  1. Zoom
  2. Peacock
  3. TikTok
  4. Instacart
  5. DoorDash
  6. HBO Max
  7. WhatsApp
  8. Microsoft Teams
  9. T Mobile
  10. Pfizer

You can check out the full list of brands here.

Research contact: @FastCompanyTop b

Airbnbee? This company rents you a beehive for your backyard

November 5, 2020

Across the Triangle in North Carolina—a region that includes Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill—at least 55 residents have voluntarily devoted a section of their backyards to bees. These residents aren’t beekeepers themselves, but pay a fee to Buddha Bee Apiary to host the hives, Fast Company reports.

For its part, Buddha Bee Apiary, based in Durham, installs each hive, visits monthly to inspect and care for the bees, and harvests the honey.

The honeybee population in the U.S. has been declining; beekeepers here lost 37% of their colonies in 2019—a matter of concern, experts say, because of how crucial these bees are to pollinating crops and wild plants. Beekeeping can help build that population (and even help wild bees) to pollinate your local flora, but can be expensive and time consuming to get into. That’s where Buddha Bee Apiary, founded in 2020 by Justin Maness, comes in, to bring the benefits of bees to people without them needing all the equipment or any knowledge of beekeeping.

Buddha Bee Apiary also harvests the honey, and the host gets half for his or her own family’s consumption and use. But Maness says that’s not the main draw. “There’s some folks who are interested in the honey and some who are not,” he says. “I think the real big value that people get out of it is the fact that they can get invested in the hive, learn more [about bees], and also know that they’re contributing back to something that’s going to be good for our environment.”

Before you can host a hive, an expert from Buddha Bee Apiary will assess your yard to see if it’s suitable for bees. The biggest needs, Maness says, are enough space for the two-by-three-foot hive and about an eight-foot low-traffic radius around it to give the bees some calm. Sunlight helps, too, because it can keep away a pest called the small hive beetle (it’s important that you don’t use mosquito sprays on your lawn).

Once a yard is hive-approved, Buddha Bee Apiary makes the installation an event—a “welcoming of the bees,” Maness says—telling the host to invite family and friends. Neighbors or friend groups have gone in on the $150-per-month fee for a hive together, too. Some of the hosts eventually want to take over the beekeeping duties, and Buddha Bee Apiary will help with that transition. Others don’t, but want their kids to be involved in the inspection; for those groups, the beekeeper will bring an extra protective jacket so they can get up close.

“Once people get invested into the bees, their health, and the hive as a whole, it’s interesting to see people take on projects of converting their yard,” Maness says. “Taking a green space and completely digging it up and planting wildflowers, or taking a list [of plants] that we send them and removing some of these plants so that they can put in plants that are pollinator-friendly.”

Grass lawns aren’t that environmentally friendly, since they’re a monoculture that requires a lot of care (and grass is pollinated by wind, not bees). A side effect of bringing beehives to backyards, Maness says, is that people have been transforming their grass yards into something more impactful for the environment.

The bees pollinate plants within a three-mile radius of their home. With 55 installations of 60 hives, and each hive home to about 45,000 bees, Maness estimates the company has helped install more than 2 million bees all over the region, Fast Company notes.

Buddha Bee Apiary isn’t the only company to do a host-a-hive program. Maness started the company after working with Bee Downtown, which installs and maintains beehives on corporate campuses in North Carolina. “It was amazing to experience this one-on-one interaction with people who have never had this experience with bees, and see their eyes light up and just be absolutely in awe at how beautiful the inner workings of a beehive are,” he says.

He wanted to bring that directly to people at their homes. Other beekeepers have done the same. Best Bees manages hives for both corporations and residential homes in Boston, Houston, Chicago, and other cities. Hive hosting also has taken off across Australia and in the U.K.

Research contact: @FastCompany

The strange story of the Southern town that Hollywood insiders are building from scratch

October 13, 2020

It’s not a studio set for a movie—but on a 235-acre location just outside Atlanta, a small town, retail businesses, parks, and a huge media production facility are going up rapidly, with funding and boots-on-the-ground support from U.S. and U.K. film insiders, Fast Company reports.

When the British film studio company Pinewood—located just outside London—opened a production facility in the suburbs of Atlanta in 2014; it framed the venture as a one-stop-shop alternative to the mature, but spatially fragmented, system in Hollywood.

With a high-tech media center, soundstages, offices, prop houses, and set builders all co-located, Pinewood Atlanta was a turnkey space for filming. An early relationship with Marvel Studios led to a steady stream of big-budget superhero movies such as Ant Man and Captain America: Civil War, and Pinewood Atlanta quickly became a contender in the film business.

But some of its local investors wanted it to be more than just a production facility. They wanted the entire business to have a place at the studios, with development of new shows happening where they’d eventually be filmed, and local workers able to easily commute to jobs on the site.

They broke ground on the town in 2018.

“Originally the idea of it was to do a mill town, a company town, which just meant get some housing here because people have got to live somewhere, and we want to make it convenient. And it grew into, if you’re going to build a town from scratch, what would you do?” says Rob Parker, president of what is now known as Trilith, a 235-acre town built within the 900-acre site of the studios.

According to Fast Company, Pinewood recently left the project, amiably, and the studio and town are now fully in the hands of local founders, who have accelerated Trilith’s development. Planned with New Urbanist design principles, Trilith is a dense, pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use village, with a commercial town center, more than half of its area dedicated to green space and forest, and room for an eventual population of 5,000.

About 500 people are currently living in the town, which is planned to have a total of 1,400 townhomes, apartments, co-housing units, and 500-square-foot “microhomes.” Housing is available to rent or buy, and Trilith’s developers say it’s luring residents from within the film industry, as well as people from other walks of life.

The studio side, now  named Trilith Studios, is also being redeveloped, with new facilities geared toward more parts of  the business, such as development offices and space for tech companies. These spaces are intended to bring in new types of companies in addition to the 60 vendors already providing production and ancillary services to productions on-site. The town side feeds into this ecosystem, creating the kind of place where people can work on months-long productions or years-long TV series without feeling like they’re living out of a suitcase.

“Instead of just being a soundstage facility that you haul people to when you’re ready to shoot, it can be a place where the development team can live and work, or have a second home at,” says Frank Patterson, president and CEO of Trilith Studios. “In some cases we have producers and production managers and coordinators that are now just living here because there’s so many shows coming.”

“We’re not talking about some kind of fantasy nirvana,” says Parker, noting that residents include firefighters, schoolteachers, and pilots working out of nearby Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, as well as film industry professionals. “We’re talking about a real town, with the grit of a real town, the authenticity of a real town, all different housing types, all the way down to making sure all of your teams can afford to live here.”

How diverse the town ends up being remains to be seen as more of its homes and commercial properties come online. For now, it’s undeniably centered around film and TV production. Patterson, who’s worked in film since living in Hollywood in the 1980s, says Trilith is hoping to create a new kind of ecosystem for creative people to both work and live in, an industry town that’s as much about the town as it is about the industry.

“I know a lot of industries work this way, but it’s particular to the film industry that we like to make stuff together, we like to hang out together, we like to drink together, we like to raise our families together,” he says. “It just wouldn’t exist without the town.”

Research contact: @FastCompany

How to move to Canada: Fearing a Trump win, many Americans are hoping to pack their bags

October 2, 2020

Exactly four years ago, Stephen Shainbart made an important decision: If Donald Trump got elected president, he was going to leave the United States.

But while many Americans threatened to move away in the months leading up to the 2016 election, he actually followed through—swapping New York for Toronto, Fast Company reports.

The night Trump won his bid for the White House, the 56-year-old psychologist started seriously researching the land that begat Margaret AtwoodDan Levy, and Garrett Camp—and then spent so much money becoming a permanent resident that he doesn’t yet own property in the 416.

“I didn’t think his judgment was sound because of his personality and his narcissism, and I thought he’d probably put his own interests in front of the people’s. As a native New Yorker, I’ve known all about Trump my entire life,” Shainbart explains, adding that with a father who survived the Holocaust and a grandfather killed in Auschwitz, he had personal reasons, too.

In 2020, Americans whose exposure to Trump had been limited to The Celebrity Apprentice, juicy tabloid stories about his marriages and real estate, and The Art of the Deal now have a presidential track record of 3.5 years to examine.

And for those willing to leave in the wake of another Trump victory, Canada is once again emerging as the most attractive choice. Our northern neighbor has the advantage of language, proximity, and a similar culture; and professionals on the front lines of the relocation, like real estate agents and immigration lawyers, say they’re fielding more calls from Americans.

Daniel Dagenais of Sotheby’s International Realty in Quebec, for example, has had a 50% increase in queries from Americans, while Wayne Ellis, president of the Prince Edward Island Real Estate Association, reports a 300% jump.

People in California, New York, and Florida have been contacting Brenda Westbrook of the Sutton Group Admiral Realty in Toronto, looking for executive homes or cottages, Fast Company notes.

“People are afraid on both ends, both Democrats and Republicans,” she says. “You can buy as a foreign investor and come just to have a foot in the door. They usually rent them until they need them . . . They think it’s unbearable. It’s crazy.”

Traffic from American IP addresses to the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada website was up this summer over the same period in 2019, according to the government agency, which reports an estimated 135,000 additional visits in July and 180,000 more in August. However, traffic from the U.S. was down in the winter and spring, compared to 2019, and the IRCC website features information about not only permanent immigration to Canada, but also temporary visits and work, international study, and COVID-related border restrictions.

According to Fast Company, attorneys are contending with a similar spike. Evan Green, who’s practiced law in Toronto for 30 years, says he used to file one or two immigration applications for people in the U.S. per month, but now, he’s doing one or two per day. His clients are primarily what he calls “wayward Canadians,” citizens of his country who moved to America years ago, built lives in the States, and now want to go home; Americans in commuter marriages with Canadians; and Americans who simply want out.

They are “people who are somewhat disillusioned by the United States in its current form,” Green explains. “These are people who while certainly worried about results of the elections, are also worried about other things which they see as issues in the United States; like violence and divisions within society they feel are much stronger.”

The naïveté Americans once had about Canada has disappeared. The COVID-19 pandemic shut down the historically porous—and even post-9/11, relatively easy to pass through—borders between the countries that have been friends since the end of the War of 1812. (The White House played a role in that, too. In 1814, troops from Britain, which at the time claimed parts of Canada as colonies, burned down the presidential home, then inhabited by James Madison and his wife, Dolley.)

“We’re a regular country with laws . . . I don’t live in perfect country, but I’m very happy where I live right now,” says Green, who saw an uptick in interest from Americans in 2016, but not as much as now. “COVID has added a level of uncertainty to people’s lives. ‘You know what? Things are so unsettled. I’m feeling so unstable. Let’s get some place more stable.’”

But, Fast Company warns: If you’re planning to make the move now, be prepared to wait. No paperwork will be ready by November 3. For that, you can blame Canada—in this case bureaucracy, and not enough people in the department and not enough case processing centers. Also, causing the slowdown are the delays caused by COVID-19, according to Véronique Malka, a Canadian attorney licensed to operate in the U.S.A., whose inquiries from Americans are up 30%.

People whose paperwork is expedited tend to be refugees (not applicable here), individuals running startups, and self-employed extraordinarily accomplished people, like musicians, she explains. Other shortcuts may be available for people who can qualify for citizenship, which in 2019 was limited to the children of ex-pats; students; the dozens of professions set aside under NAFTA, such as accountants, dentists, certain types of scientists, social workers, and urban planners; and individuals willing to live in rural or far-northern communities.

“They thought about it during first election in 2016 and now they’re serious about it. The Canadian immigration website shut down, because it crashed on the night of the election,” Malka says. “There’s almost nothing under a two-year wait. That’s a big piece of it. It’s a big burst of the bubble. People say, ‘I want to get out of here.’”

Unlike realtors and attorneys who wait for clients to contact them, Rob Calabrese is actively recruiting Americans to relocate to Canada. In 2016, he launched to promote an island off Nova Scotia called Cape Breton ( the CB in the URL). The D.J. turned apple cider maker has seen a steady increase in queries—now about a dozen a day, though he’s certain that’ll increase.

“People threaten to move to Canada every year you guys have an election. Usually, it’s Democrats, though I heard lots of Republicans threatened to move to Canada when Obama was elected, and I don’t think they really understood what we have going on here. My aim was to put Cape Breton in front of a large audience,” Calabrese explains. “Canada is a big place and we’re not just two big English cities and a French city.”

Cape Breton, which almost the size of the big island of Hawaii, has been losing about 1,000 people a year. The population drain concerns Calabrese.

“We have problems absolutely but nothing like yours,” he adds. “I love America and I love going to the United States. We would love for Americans to stay where they are and vote for someone other than Donald Trump. I’d much rather that. Canada and U.S.A, I thought we were best friends and now, we’re not.”

Shainbart says voting Trump out of office won’t change much, though. If former Vice President Joe Biden wins the election in November, he’s not heading back to America. When he immigrated to the Great White North, he knew he was there for good.

“All the Trump supporters are still going to be there,” he explains. “Trump is as much of a symptom of the problem in America as the cause . . . I think something’s very wrong with the U.S. that we elected such a person, and that will remain.”

Research contact: @FastCompany

‘Will you shut up, man?’: Biden sells T-shirt flaunting a memorable phrase from a loony debate

October 1, 2020

Tuesday night’s presidential debate was, well, a “sh*t show” as CNN’s Dana Bash succinctly called it. Another CNN host, Jake Tapper, was a little more reserved—but just barely—calling the Trump-Biden face-off on September 29 “a hot mess, inside a dumpster fire, inside a train wreck.”

On the other hand, Trump Campaign Manager Bill Stepien said in a statement (presumably because it would have been too hard to keep a straight face while actually speaking these words), “President Trump just turned in the greatest debate performance in presidential history.”

“Yeah,” said Fast Company on Wednesday.

But look, no matter the number of astonishing moments—like when Trump was asked to condemn white supremacists, but instead told the White nationalist hate group, the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by”—there were some great, if not shocking, zingers from Biden. For instance, after Trump continued to talk over Biden, the former VP let out the words that many viewers were probably thinking: “Will you shut up, man?”

Needless to say, Biden’s plea quickly went viral. It went so viral, matter of fact, that the Biden campaign started selling “Will You Shut Up, Man?” T-shirts before the debate was even over, Fast Company reports.

While there are no sales numbers available yet, it’s easy to imagine the shirt will be one of the Biden campaign’s best-sellers. You can grab one now for $30—and, if anything, you might want to just for posterity’s sake. It could easily be one of the most memorable pieces of 2020 election memorabilia.

Then again, we have two more debates to get through. If last night is any indication, who knows what will happen—and what possible T-shirts they may spawn.

Research contact: @FastCompany

The Halo effect: Amazon’s first health wearable, is no Fitbit or Apple Watch clone

August 31, 2020

Amazon is launching Halo, a minimalist $99 health sleek,wearable, companion to an app that measures your body fat and gauges your tone of voice. Executives who worked on the project told Fast Company last week that the offering is more about the app and its various features than the wearable itself.

Right now, consumers can preorder the Halo band for $65, which includes six months of access to the app. After the first six months, customers will have to pay $4 a month to continue using the app. Once it ships in a few weeks, Halo will be $99, also with the $4/month fee. The app and the band work with both iPhones and Android devices.

Though that pricing puts the Halo in competition with Fitbit’s fitness trackers, Amazon—which has also purchased online pharmacy PillPack, developed both virtual and in-clinic employee health centers, and sought out HIPPA compliance for its Alexa voice assistant—is taking a different approach to health than its competitors in wearables.

For one thing, the company thinks Halo’s real value is in the app. Data tracking is divided into four sections, Activity, Body, Sleep, and Tone. The app also offers Labs, a series of health challenges designed by a range of professionals and expert organizations. While Activity and Sleep offer standard health-tracking capabilities, Body, Tone, and Labs represent Halo’s distinguishing features, Fast Company reports..

The Halo tracker is extremely simple: just a piece of water-resistant fabric and a small sensor-laden bit of hardware that lays against the wrist. There’s no display, notifications, clock, or other features that have become standard fare on even basic fitness trackers from other companies. (Like other wrist wearables, it does offer band options in several colors and materials.)

Halo tracks movement, heart rate, skin temperature, and the tone of a person’s voice. Notably, it doesn’t track heart rate variability. Both the Apple Watch and Fitbit’s devices have added heart rate variability in recent versions of their wearables, seemingly as a test of their ability as a diagnostic tool.

Amazon’s tracker captures steps, duration, and intensity of activity, as well as sedentary time to generate an activity score. While any activity will raise your score, you’ll be awarded more points for running as opposed to walking. The band can detect the difference between walking and running, and you can manually mark if you swim, cycle, or perform some other form of exercise. Sedentary time can negatively impact your score if you sit for more than eight hours.

The app also measures activity on a weekly rather than daily basis. “It’s more aligned with the [CDC] guideline recommendations, which clearly state that people should get 150 minutes of moderate exercise on a weekly basis at a minimum,” says Dr. Maulik Majmudar, a cardiologist and Amazon’s chief medical officer. Before joining Amazon in 2018, he practiced at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Halo tracks sleep too. Like the Apple Watch, Fitbits, and the Oura Ring, Halo identifies sleep duration and how long you linger in light sleep, REM sleep, and deep sleep. It also measures and monitors skin temperature at the wrist, to see if how this changes over the course of the night correlates to your sleep quality. Skin temperature is not the same as internal temperature, so it would not be a sound way to determine if someone has a fever, for example.

However, Body is one of the most distinctive elements of the Halo app. Using a phone’s camera, it captures a three-dimensional model of a person’s body to help them track their body changes over time and to track its fat percentage.

“You’re probably wondering, why body fat?” Majmudar told Fast Company in an interview. “Body fat percentage is actually much better indicator of overall health than weight or body mass index [BMI] alone.” A recent meta-analysis, published in the journal, Nature, shows that BMI isn’t a great indicator for obesity, which doctors use to look out for obesity-related disease. However, getting a good reading on a person’s body fat has historically been cumbersome and expensive. Amazon now suggests it can make this determination using a phone camera.

To get their body fat percentage, people must wear “tight, minimal” clothing, such as bike shorts and a sports bra. Placing their phone 4-6 feet away, they then take capture photos or “body scans,” one front facing, one back, and one from each side. Artificial intelligence renders those photos into a 3D view of their body shape.

Once calculated, the body fat percentage number is presented alongside a corresponding national average based on a person’s gender, age, height, and weight. The body model can be morphed to show how a person might look if they gained or lost weight. The visualization is designed for those trying to work towards certain body goals.(However, it could also be dangerous fodder for anyone suffering from body dysmorphia, eating disorders, or compulsive exercising.)

Majmudar says that by default, the body-scan photos are processed in the cloud and then deleted after 12 hours. The body model is only stored locally on the phone.

Tone is by far the strangest of the app’s features. Using its embedded microphone, the band listens to your voice throughout the day and detects its tone—positive, sad, irritated, or otherwise. The idea is to address your social and emotional health.

To use Tone, you have to create a voice profile by reading a piece of text. That way, it can recognize and measure only your voice, not other ones it may pick up. When Tone is turned on, it runs passively and intermittently in the background, picking up on snippets of conversations throughout the day. It then tells you how you sounded to other people. Among the list of emotions is content, concerned, happy, and tired.

“This gives you a simple way to reflect on your communications and interactions throughout the day,” says Majmudar. This feature also gives you summaries of your mood throughout the day, highlighting when you were noticeably energetic, positive, or warm. It also notes outlier moments when you sound different than they ordinarily do.

For those that may be concerned about Amazon tracking their every word, the company says this audio never goes to the cloud. It’s processed on your phone, and isn’t stored. Amazon appears to be drawing a hard line on privacy here. In the past, its stance on

Amazon is balancing its consideration for privacy with a healthy amount of data sharing. In order to make the data Halo collects useful, it’s turning to partners. WW (Weight Watchers) users can link to the Halo app activity, so they can collect FitPoints. Cerner, the electronic health record provider, can also hook into Halo and transfer a persons health data over to his or her larger medical record.

The Labs feature—which provides activities that users can perform to change their health outlook—also draws on Amazon’s partners. For instance, the Mayo Clinic offers a pet-free bedroom Lab that is supposed to lower sleep interruptions from a restless pet. Weight loss program LifeSum, has an activity for reducing calorie intake. Other partners include Apptiv, Orange Theory, Harvard Medical, and the American Health Association. These activities provide one more way for users to put that wrist band to use (and perhaps ensure that it doesn’t get relegated to a drawer somewhere).

How well does Halo track and analyze the data it collects? For now, it’s anyone’s guess. Majmudar says that Amazon has done lots of internal testing, but has not yet published any studies verifying the Halo’s capabilities.

Indeed, Amazon has good reason to want to get this right. But we won’t know how well it’s done until Halo arrives and independent researchers put it to the test.

Research contact: @FastCompany

Serena Williams designs limited edition Gatorade bottle

July 3, 2020

Tennis ace Serena Williams isn’t afraid of coming on strong—either on the court or off it.

Throughout her career, she has grabbed headlines not just for her dominance on the court, but for her self-designed bold outfit choices as well. To some, her now-iconic catsuits, tutus, bold prints, and more may seem to supersede function.

But to Williams, fashion and performance go hand in hand, according to her recent interview with Fast Company. “My sister and I both say, ‘Look good, feel good, play good,’” Williams says.

Now, Fast Company says, she’s channeling that philosophy into a limited-edition Gatorade bottle.

To promote Gatorade’s Gx customizable hydration line, Williams designed a bottle that encompasses more than just something to hold your electrolytic fruit punch.

“I wanted to create something that tells a story about—not only my strength as an athlete but also my strength as a mom,” Williams says.

Williams’s bottle incorporates bright, almost neon colors broken up by thick black lettering that, if you look closely, spells out “STRONG.”

“For me, bold colors are essential. And we have Gatorade’s iconic orange because when I was younger, my dream was to be a Gatorade athlete. So I wanted to keep that inspirational story with the orange,” Williams says.

As for the black, it’s a theme Williams translates into her strength on and off the court.

“Being an athlete is easy,” she told Fast Company. “Being a mom is so hard. That’s like the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

Williams has what she jokingly calls a “lifetime partnership” with Gatorade—and the pairing has certainly produced some noteworthy campaigns. So for both Williams and Gatorade, this collaboration was more than just imprinting her name on a bottle.

“When you think about Serena Williams, you think of someone that’s different and stands up and stands out for lots of different things outside of tennis,” Williams continues. “That was the same method that I wanted to do when I was designing this bottle.”

Research contact: @FastCompany