Company literature calls the GoBe "the Original 100% Automatic Body Manager™." The wearable device, which is being showcased this week by Healbe Corp. at the International CES expo in Las Vegas, is a slick-looking wristband that promises to monitor sleep patterns, hydration, stress levels and caloric intake — all of it measured through the user's skin.
Even more enticing, the GoBe does it all by "connecting effortlessly" through your smartphone.
"Tell it nothing, know everything and go be you," a soothing voice says in a video on the Helbe Web site.
But if the $299 GoBe sounds too good to be true, that's because it is, according to a growing chorus of critics.
Among the red flags currently at full staff:
- Healbe says that the wristband is not a medical device and that its claims are based on a study involving a total of five people measured over five days, according to GoBe testing results.
- Last year, a spokesperson for the Federal Trade Commission confirmed that Healbe would not be allowed to advertise via traditional media, according to PandoDaily.
- The company claims it is based in San Francisco, but it is actually operated in Moscow, with its U.S. office amounting to "a lawyer, a dummy corporation and a PR-office in New Hampshire," according to PandoDaily.
- Asked by a reporter whether the product had been tested and the results published in a peer-reviewed journal, George Mikaberidze, the company's managing director, "didn't seen to understand the question," according to the Verge, which says the "calorie-counting gadget is based on bad science."
In a product preview, CNet praised the wristband's "striking design" and fit but stopped short of a full-fledged endorsement by acknowledging that it hadn't "tested the device properly."
BBC News also put the controversial device to the test, then said, in summary: "It worked better than we expected, but our test was hardly scientific and far from conclusive."
Here's a company video showing the device in action:
The GoBe story begins in 1999, according to Healbe, when a team of scientists at a Russian company called Algorithm began developing a device that could monitor glucose levels without drawing blood. PandoDaily described this as the "holy grail" of medical technologies for diabetics, a problem that medical laboratories have been trying to solve for four decades, without luck.
The initial group included "an endocrinologist, a physician, a mathematician, and a TRIZ analyst," according to Healbe. Four years and more than 500 tests later, the company had the basic technology in place. But, as PandoDaily noted, no records of those tests have ever been published.
In 2012, Healbe acquired the technology and, using a "stream of mathematical models," adapted it to monitor caloric intake and burn. The final result, according to the company, is "Healbe FLOW™ Technology."
"Only GoBe uses Healbe flow technology, the patented innovation that combines information from three sensors with an advanced algorithm to calculate caloric intake through your skin by reading the amount of glucose in your your cells," the Healbe video states.
Artem Shipitsyn, chief executive of Healbe, says the technology will help people live a healthy life with less effort. Before GoBe, the company says, consumers were forced to rely on manual calorie tracking, which is subject to miscalculations, estimation and inaccurate food labels.
“We live in an age where people struggle with their diets and need simple ways to take control of their health,” Shipitsyn says in a video on the device’s Indiegogo fundraising page.
Unfortunately, critics say, the device may require too little effort to be believable.
If the company's claims were true, the critics say, the device would forever change the way people diet and monitor their glucose levels. "Even the best calorie-counting apps today rely on manual food logging," the Atlantic points out. And then there are diabetics, who are forced to draw blood by pricking their skin to measure glucose.
Michelle MacDonald, a clinical dietitian at the National Jewish Health hospital in Denver, told PandoDaily that non-invasive technology for diabetics is probably on its way — but is likely to involve a much larger device using infrared light to measure the fluid in interstitial cells.
“If you actually had this technology, Indiegogo would be the last channel you’d go through,” MacDonald said, noting that the device would probably come from a big lab and make a large amount of money.
How much money?
"If you have this technology, you don’t need to find these strange uses for it," Peter Butler, a professor of medicine in UCLA's division of endocrinology, told PandoDaily. "They could sell this to 35 million people in the U.S. alone, overnight.”
In June, a TechHive reviewer was allowed to spend 30 minutes with the device ("the 'automatic' calorie tracker few believe can work") during an interview with Mikaberydze. But the reviewer was unable to use it or form a conclusive opinion — and anyway, he wrote, "only rigorous scientific testing can support or refute the company's assertions."
Healbe maintains that its algorithms can measure calories with 86 percent accuracy, but doctors and scientists told TechHive that a correlation between glucose levels and calories doesn't exist.
"Mikaberydze told me that I couldn't use the device because each GoBe is tailored to its user: It learns your metabolic rhythms and normal glucose patterns and spits out hyper-individualized data. Mikaberydze’s own GoBe would give me completely inaccurate readings, he said, because we don’t respond to food in the same way."
The BBC's reviewer, who faintly praised the wristband, had a similar experience and was allowed to test only Mikaberydze's personal GoBe.
"On the minus side, we did not have the opportunity to try out GoBe ourselves as we were told "it takes time to calibrate" to a specific person, and so the results were based on us stuffing Mr Mikaberydze with snack food.
Here's what we fed him:
- Half a cheese and turkey sandwich (125 calories)
- A bottle of apple juice (210 calories)
- A small Snickers chocolate bar (220 calories)
The smartphone app, which connects to the GoBe wirelessly over Bluetooth, started rising within 15 minutes.
But because it takes time for the body to digest its intake, we had to wait about two-and-a-half hours to get a final reading."
Before the Indiegogo fundraising campaign kicked off last year, Shipitsyn was quoted in multiple publications as saying that Healbe had varying amounts of money invested in GoBe, ranging from $900,000 to $3 million, according to PandoDaily.
"Healbe’s campaign quickly flew past its $100k target. Shipitsyn later told a Russian website that he chose Indiegogo over Kickstarter, which he acknowledged had a larger user base and access to more support, largely because the latter has “higher barriers to entry.”
Crowd-funding untested medical products presents an opportunity for donors to be misled, according to the Atlantic.
Health start-ups can be particularly difficult for donors to scrutinize because medical science itself is obscure and confusing. Studies come and go; things that once seemed “good” are now “bad” (e.g. agave nectar). And yet, we all want to be healthy — especially if it requires little more effort than strapping on a wristband."
By the time it closed, the Indiegogo campaign for the GoBe raised more than $1 million from nearly 4,500 people. TechHive also noted that fundraisers were scheduled to receive their own GoBes as far back as June, but delays have persisted ever since.
"Mikaberydze said issues with the product’s Chinese manufacturers have caused the months-long delays. The $299 GoBe will be available in stores in October—if any retailers decide to stock the controversial product, that is."
The wristband is currently available for pre-order and will begin shipping in March, according to Healbe spokeswoman Nicole Cobuzio. She said buyers who contributed to the crowd-funding campaign will receive their devices this month.
On GoBe's Indiegogo page, recent comments were mixed, with some people expressing excitement about the product and others posting critical stories and demanding their donations back.
"Definitely no refund – more than 14 days now !!!," wrote one commenter. "Can I get a proof of the transaction please ?"
"Way to many shipping delays!!!," wrote another. "MORE COMMUNICATION is needed at this point!!!"