Backache? This app uses your webcam to detect bad posture and says it’s not spying…

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Are you slouching at your desk again? There is an app for that… zen uses posture mirroring software to help information workers stop slouching at their desks – sending alerts when it detects you’re not sitting straight so you can correct your posture and hopefully avoid back problems for life.

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Catch? It uses your webcam to check your posture. So, uh, you should be comfortable with the Zen software that “watches” through the lens as you work.

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Considering how many people regularly tape their webcams just to be sureyou know the NSA is not watching is a question. So we asked Zen co-founder and CEO Daniel James how the San Francisco startup is handling privacy.

In addition to offering the tool directly to consumers (it currently has over 1,000 users of the subscription service), the startup sells a version of Zen to employers and has signed about 30 companies (including more than a dozen enterprises) since the launch of the offering. back in October 2020. And with the explosion of employee monitoring tools in the wake of the pandemic-driven remote work boom, there are plenty of reasons to be concerned about privacy.

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For example, can an employer who subscribes to Zen use this tool, if not to literally spy on employees sitting at their desks (which would probably be pretty boring) and then to record how many hours they physically sat in front of the desk. a screen, say — and use those data points to get employees to cut back on any desk breaks they might wish to?

It’s not hard to imagine the dystopian use of webcam-based tools, because such things are unfortunately not science fiction. Take Amazon’s launch last year in the US of AI cameras in its Prime delivery vans, which the company says will be used to assess the “safety” of drivers, but which critics immediately dubbed Orwellian surveillance

In short, “AI with eyes” can just feel, er, function. creepy.

Zen says that a “privacy-centric” approach was taken when creating this webcam-based posture correction technology – meaning the company has taken some specific steps to try and reassure users that they are not watching them or anyone else. as the AI ​​is watching them.

First, its posture correction software is open source (the code is here on Github). “We use open source software for the entire app, with the exception of our exercises and educational content, which we make to order,” James notes when asked about it.

The AI ​​also processes data locally on the device, which means it doesn’t require an internet connection to function, so users can make sure it doesn’t upload/upload any data to the cloud by checking it with their AI, he says. Wi-Fi/internet connection is disabled.

“The posture correction software feature works offline, without internet connection, without recording or storing images,” he emphasizes. “Because data such as photos or videos cannot be transferred to the cloud without an internet connection, which is the only way employers can spy on employees, it is technically impossible for us (Zen) or employers to record or store any visual and end up spying on people.”

It also confirms that employers using the Zen software only receive “aggregated” (entire company) and “anonymous” (no individual names) information about how many employees sign up for the app and how many use it weekly.

“With these two data points, they can see if employees are involved in Zen or not, which is usually the determining factor for them when deciding whether to renew a contract with us,” he adds.

So, to be clear, Zen claims that neither employers who pay for the software (or Zen itself) can access users’ camera to record or store any visuals.

“The app’s posture correction feature, which is the only feature that accesses the cameras of individuals, doesn’t run in the cloud, which technically means no one can connect to the app and access data, including visuals,” says James. adding: “Surprisingly, no employer has ever asked for ‘spyware’ data. They really just want to know if employees are using the solution they are paying for.”

Even so, privacy-conscious office workers may not like the idea of ​​sitting all day in front of a naked camera lens.

After all, few things in technology so blissfully fall out of sight, out of the head, like a webcam with a sticker pasted on it.

Posture check

In this regard, James suggests that Zen users have come up with their own way to feel comfortable with this tool, since, according to him, they tend to use the app for short posture checks – say 30 minutes or an hour with the feature enabled, a couple once a day instead of keeping it on all the time.

The developers have wisely taken this into account by recommending that users do a short daily check to monitor their posture.

“We’ve noticed that most of our users don’t leave Zen on all day. Instead, they have a short 30-60 minute posture session during their first work session in the morning and another around noon or 4:00 pm. This correlates with how most people meditate,” James tells TechCrunch. “They spend a short time actively aware of their thoughts, which enhances their passive awareness throughout the day. This also works for posture.

“Daily short, small sessions will ultimately improve your posture awareness and behavioral change. Also, in user interviews, people often tell us that “Zen seems to be in my head even when I’m not at my desktop.” I catch myself hunched over at the dinner table and I naturally notice this and come back upright.” Based on this anecdotal and analytical data, we have decided to recommend that people start using the app for just thirty minutes a day during what we call the “7 Day Posture Challenge.” joint pain.”

“We found that people don’t worry as much about privacy invasion when they realize that Zen doesn’t have to be on all day. You can turn it on and off as you wish,” he adds.

James also says that users often combine using the posture monitoring feature with other applications that require the webcam to be turned on, such as when they are on a video conference call.

“They can show awareness and confidence in their posture during video calls, and they always have the camera on for Zoom and G Meets, so they are not as concerned about any invasion of privacy,” he notes.

Zen integrates with the user’s overall workflow on the computer – running in the background and reflecting the user’s position with a human icon displayed in the menu bar, allowing users to keep tabs inconspicuous without being interrupted by warning messages. Blue and vertical are good; bent and red is bad. (James says he never sends distracting/popup messages, but users can choose from several options for how they want to be notified.)

Zen App for Posture Correction

How Zen warns users about poor posture: A larger image can be pinned to the screen (with an optional alarm function), or users can rely on watching an inconspicuous person in the menu bar (Source: Zen)

The posture-correcting AI works based on a user-specified baseline, which means the user must demonstrate their upright posture when adjusting. The application then uses this to build a custom model consisting of vectors that record key posture points/indicators (joints, nose, ears, etc.) so that the AI ​​can detect changes in posture in real time (i.e. when camera monitoring). and determine if the person is slouching.

“These posture points are fed into a math model that constantly compares your current posture position to the original posture reference you set as your ‘upright’ position,” he explains. “In addition, the app applies geometric formulas to the vectors generated by your current posture position and the original vertical posture’s original position to determine if you’re slouching.”

James has a personal reason to maintain good posture as he was a “very active” NCAA Division-1 college football player at Yale before moving to Adobe in San Francisco and “living a typical sedentary corporate lifestyle.” sit in front of a computer for more than eight hours a day,” which eventually led to him developing severe lower back pain and carpal tunnel.

“Adobe offered great ergonomic resources like a free ergonomics consultation and a standing table and purchased various devices that were said to help with posture, but my pain kept getting worse,” he says, elaborating on the reasons that led to the founding Zen.

It wasn’t without luck: his co-founder, Alex Sekara, who was his housemate at the time and is now Zen’s CTO, developed posture correction software for himself in college to help with a spinal condition he has. (kyphosis), which also escalated after long hours of programming during technical internships.

“In the end, we decided to join forces with the best ergonomists and physiotherapists to create Zen,” adds James.

Zen discloses $3.5 million in pre-financing raised from investors including Y Combinator, Valor Equity Partners, Goodwater Capital, Samsung Next, Softbank and others. Plans in progress for integration of key workdays (Slack, G Cal, Microsoft Teams) as well as software versions for different devices/platforms (mobile, tablets, etc.).

The startup also tells us that it is exploring partnerships with larger companies and “further validation of our solutions through clinical trials.” (Current corporate clients include Brex, Alation and Cedar.)

Zen also plans to transition its consumer product to a free version, saying it is aiming for a model similar to the Calm meditation app with premium paid features.

Expanding sales of physical products (more ergonomic chairs, mice, keyboards, etc.) is also on his roadmap, James says. The company is also exploring the possibility of using existing motion sensor hardware in devices such as higher-end headphones, wearables, according to James. and mobile phones to see if it can remap those signals to determine if the person is slouching or not.

If it can develop AI models to understand this, users could end up getting real-time posture mirroring tips without having to turn on the camera. Bliss!

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