Good habit device showcases its winning credentials to scoop Tyk Side Project Fund prize

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The Tyk Side Project Fund exists to support those innovators and change makers who want to make a difference. Pablo Jimenez Mateo is one such individual. We are delighted that his good habit device has scooped a prize to help take it from concept to working prototype.

Behind the Tyk Side Project Fund lies a desire to give something back. Tyk CEO Martin built Tyk up from his own side project to international success. The process gave him plenty of reason to appreciate the challenges involved in turning a part-time project into a fulltime endeavour. As such, the Tyk Side Project Fund is supporting those change makers who are looking to overcome those challenges in relation to their own innovative ideas.

Pablo’s exciting idea captured the Tyk team’s interest at once and we are thrilled to be sharing details of it more widely. As such, we invited Pablo to explain his good habit device in his own words. Here’s what he had to say. 

Tyk: Please can you tell us about your background and how the idea for your side project came into being?

Pablo: I have two bachelor’s degrees, one in computer engineering and one in mathematics. I also have two master’s degrees, in artificial intelligence and telecommunications. And right now, I’m in the last year of my PhD, in telecommunications. So it’s fair to say that I like little gadgets and tinkering around!

The idea for the good habit device grew from various elements. As part of my daily work, I have plenty of friends in the industry and we are always discussing new ideas and possibilities. Then, a couple of years ago, I bought my father one of those step counter Mi Bands. It was just a silly way to encourage him to exercise more but it turned out to make a big difference for him – by working towards set targets, he ended up improving his step count every day. It just clicked. It was the sense of achieving goals that helped – hitting a target number of steps is more satisfying than just walking for 20 minutes.

That got me thinking. I’ve been trying to build several healthy habits in my own life, like drinking more water and sleeping for certain numbers of hours; things like that. I began thinking about a link between healthy habits, achieving goals and empathy. That’s where the good habit device comes in.

I’m calling it Take, but that’s a work in progress name! It’s a tiny device that I’m using as a prototype. It’s open hardware, based on Arduino. 

The idea is similar in a way to the Tamagotchi digital pets from the 1990s. You had to feed them and take care of them. With this new device, you get your digital pet to take care of itself by sticking with good habits. It comes with a companion app for a smartphone. When you input that you drink a glass of water (for example), or your device tracks you keeping active, the pet’s behaviour and happiness grow alongside your own behaviours.

This is where the empathy comes in – the link between your activity levels and how happy you’re making your pet. You’re suddenly not only taking better care of yourself because it’s good for you, but for the sake of your digital pet, too. It creates a connection.

The more interactions we can capture, the better. That’s why my proposal to the Tyk Side Project Fund included requests for numerous sensors – it’s to capture data like how much time you’ve spent outdoors in the sunshine, for example. I want to experiment to know how many things I can integrate into Take to make the user better holistically.

The graphics are normally the hardest part, because they take up a lot of space. From those, I can generate the pet itself or any element of it, like a hat for it when the device is in the sun, or to make it drink a glass of water when the user does.

With the graphics out of the way, the models can be very tiny. I have a bluetooth model with accelerometers to count steps. I’ve been toying with various designs for testing, including ways to enhance the accuracy of the accelerometer.

This is a project that I’ve been working on with quite a bit of excitement. I’ve worked mainly with software before, though I do have some experience of hardware. This combines both requirements, so is really interesting.

Tyk: What have been your primary challenges while working on your side project?

Pablo: The toughest challenge is the lack of time available, though I’ve contributed as many evenings and weekends as possible.

I also can’t justify spending very much money on little components; thankfully that’s where the Tyk prize money has come in at the perfect time! There is some hardware that I’m missing that is key. For example, without any flash memory or a memory card, at the moment I can’t store data between runs when I turn the device off and on again, which slows down the process.

So time and money have been the hardest challenges, as I guess they are for many people with side projects!

Tyk: What are the values that drive you to work on this project and more generally?

Pablo: I really like open source hardware, so I try to do everything in the open. The community element of this project will be important. I think the value that I want to bring out with this device is that sense of community – a community where people don’t challenge each other on how fast they are, where they’re not competing other than in a very positive way, based on how good their habits are. Things like how many glasses of water they’re drinking or whether they’re getting six or seven hours of sleep each night.

If you can create a connection, using goals that you get immediate feedback on, you can create habits step by step. That’s the value I want to bring with this project.

Tyk: What stage is your side project at right now and where do you see it going in the long term?

Pablo: The way I normally approach projects is by building small blocks and then putting them all together. Right now, for the good habit device, I have the block that takes care of the graphics and I have the block that takes care of counting steps, which was a surprisingly big challenge! I also have a working bluetooth prototype. Those are three out of the five main blocks for this project. The fourth is the artificial intelligence element and the fifth is the smartphone app.

The challenge I have to face now is that I’ve not developed a fully featured smartphone app yet. I’ve done my tiny project and I don’t want the app to be particularly complicated, so it shouldn’t be a big problem.

What I really want to get on point is the artificial intelligence aspect. I want to release a product where people really feel like they are connecting with the device. I don’t want to release a Tamagotchi that just reacts when you exercise or when you drink water, with no personality. It needs to have personality, even if that starts off small and I can then improve it with updates.

I’m in a good place regarding the project; I’m about a third of the way along now.

Tyk: How do you manage your day job while also finding time for this side project?

Pablo: Life as a researcher is very messy! I don’t really work set hours – I have to work eight hours a day, but if we’re about to publish an article then that can increase significantly. That means it can be difficult to plan ahead and allocate time slots to Take in advance.

My methodology is to keep everything tidy. I keep notes on pretty much everything. I wrote my own note-taking application and I have a folder for each of my projects. I have to do lists, lists of the things I’ve done and lists of specific steps that I need to achieve next. So when I find myself with a free slot, I can pick up from the notes and see instantly where I am, which problems I’m in the middle of working through and so forth.

At the end of every working session, I write everything down. That allows me to keep a sequence of how I’m doing on the project without having set time slots allocated to it each week.

Tyk: What keeps you motivated to work on this particular project without burning out?

Pablo: It can be challenging! I guess what motivates me is the desire to actually get the project done. Building my own applications, like my note-taking application means that I learn a lot – far more than if I just used one of the thousands of note-taking apps that already exist! – and there’s also a real sense of reward to finish your own project. It’s also beautiful to be able to tailor your applications to provide precisely what you want from them.

For Take, I have a very particular vision of what I want. There are similar projects out there, but the smartphone apps, for example, have a lot of ads and usually use poor templates with the same set of features. I hope to build something more unique with this project.

Tyk: How will the Tyk Side Project Fund help to move Take forward?

Pablo: The impact that the funding will have is huge. The hardware isn’t exceptionally expensive, but I can’t afford to buy it myself. This meant I had to cut down the vision for the project, cutting out things like light sensors that would be wonderful to have but were not crucial to the project.

I reduced my core components to the accelerometer, the screen and the bluetooth. That created problems with developing Take, as I don’t have memory to work with, sensors to integrate and those kinds of things. The lack of memory means that whenever I want to try something, I have to reflash the device. I have to swap modules all the time. I couldn’t work with a fully integrated project without the funding.

I also want to create a social interaction element to the project – I’m really looking forward to that. It would work as a device to device interaction, so when another Take user is present, the devices share information on how each user is doing. Like when you had a Nintendo 3DS and you encountered someone else with one on the same mode, their avatar would greet you. That adds extra value and good feeling to the device and can push users to improve as well in a healthy competition way. The grant will help hugely with developing this.

Tyk: What tips would you give to someone looking to start a side project? 

Pablo: My advice would be to take it easy. Side projects usually take a lot of time and dedication, but you can find ways to work on this without planning ahead and allocating specific time slots. It’s also ok to take a break from it for a week or two when you need to. 

People often put a lot of pressure on themselves that’s unnecessary. If they planned to work on it on Wednesday, for example, but then don’t, that’s perfectly fine! Side projects should be fun to work on; they shouldn’t make you feel pressured, not when they’re your own projects. Pause when you need to. 

Tyk: Thank you Pablo – and best of luck with the good habit device! 

For more details on the good habit device, click here. You can also find out more about the Tyk Side Project Fund.