Farhad Farahbakhshian’s broad shoulders barely fit inside the chat window.
He's running me through a product demo for his new body-scanning scale on Skype. And to leave nothing to the imagination, he pulls out his iPhone, and begins swiping over a liquid metal rendering of his own physique. Measurements of his biceps, waist-line, and calves float over a topographical rendering that captures the ridges and valleys of his six pack. When Farahbakhshian tells me he worked at Maxim, I have to work to picture him in the multi-billion-dollar chip manufacturing company—not the notorious, bro-centric magazine.
Farahbakhshian is the CEO and founder of Naked Labs, a venture-backed Silicon Valley fitness firm that’s about to put its first product on pre-sale. The Naked 3D Fitness Tracker is an attractive, $499 mirror and scale designed by San Francisco design studio Box Clever.
But when you step onto it, the scale doesn’t just weigh you. It spins you in 360 degrees to capture a 3-D scan of your body, which gives the system the ability to track not just your weight or shape, but fat and muscle mass over days, weeks, and months. It’s like one of those "before and after" advertisements, applied to your own body.
"To be frank, we were surprised when we launched this project," Farahbakhshian says. "Most services were interested in what you’re doing to your body—Apple Watches and Fitbits are measuring activity—but not what’s happening to your body."
Fat-measuring scales have existed for decades, of course. But those scales use bioelectrical impedance measurements, sending electricity through your body and attempting to extrapolate what’s bone, skin, or muscle—and it’s a wildly inaccurate process.
Naked Labs is using a 3-D camera like the Microsoft Kinect to not just give you TSA-style body scans tracking progress over time, but to mimic a more accurate process called hydrostatic weighing, which calculates weight by measuring the amount of water your body displaces in a pool. Naked Lab's resulting margin of error is plus or minus 2.5%, and Farahbakhshian believes it could be even lower—if only they could eliminate hair from the equation, which artificially increases human volume to skew these measurements.
However, the real cleverness of the scale isn’t found in all of that technology, but the fact that the technology has been painstakingly removed from the domestic-friendly industrial design. It’s being positioned as a lifestyle product. The scale has no feet, so it can work on carpet, and fit into your bedroom. The body length mirror further incentivizes taking the device out of your bathroom and into the warmer areas of your home.
"We actually didn't start out with a mirror—the product looked nothing like a mirror when we started," Farahbakhshian says. "We did lots of user test, ethnographic studies. We learned that before people get on a scale, they want to see their body. When we tested the product with a mirror and without a mirror, there was a clear difference in how the people perceived the product."
The mirror also offers an important, visual feedback loop. The scale is photographing your body, and while you won’t see some immediate visualization of these topographical scans, you still get to see yourself. You’re on equal footing with the scan, in a way that you aren’t when you enter a TSA scanner that beams your body to some hidden screen you never see.
Even still, many people will be squeamish about uploading their near-naked body scans to a startup’s servers. So Naked Labs will offer graduated levels of privacy. You can upload everything, at full resolution, and get the company’s most accurate analysis—one example it gives me was that if your back or leg muscles seem out of proportion, the system will flag that you're headed toward an injury. You can upload a lower resolution version of yourself and still get these insights, albeit with less perfect analysis. Or you can actually just keep all of the information locally, between your scale and your phone.
Truth be told, it might be too much information. It's easy to imagine how, in the hands of someone with anorexia or body dysmorphic disorder, so many small analyses could feed destructive compulsions. But Naked Labs wants your data to make you healthier through a check and balance system of social connections. It imagines a future for its platform in which it connects you to personal trainers and nutritionists who offer fitness and eating plans that the company can analyze on a mass scale, eventually measuring your results and guiding you, with hard numbers, to keep them on track.
"It’s no longer like Jenny Craigs that tell you what to do and they're not measuring your efficiency. It’s an open loop now, and we want to close the loop," Farahbakhshian says, alluding to open loop computer systems that don’t accommodate feedback. "If you see our logo right now, it’s a closed loop with you at the center."