Q: Where did the idea for a mobile exercise device come from?
Kosta: It started, for me, with a decision to make wellness a priority in my life. My time was consumed by work, commuting, kids & travel. Things I enjoy, of course, but it seemed that all my time was sitting in front of screens. I didn’t feel healthy. I didn’t feel balanced. So I decided that on my next business trip to America, I would visit the Grossman Wellness Center and get some guidance on how to live healthier.
Q: Did the doctors there advise more exercise?
Kosta: Yes – but finding the time was really an issue for me. It feels like I’m never in the same place long enough to make a gym work. Even finding the time to change clothes and go jogging seemed ambitious. The doctors advised me to exercise with a series of elastic bands that are tied to doorknobs.
Q: Did that work for you?
Kosta: Not really. I was always afraid the bands would come loose and hit me in the face. It’s a funny image, I picture Ricky Gervais doing it, but it really worried me. Also, you never knew if you were pulling the right amount, for the right amount of time.
Q: So you wanted something quantifiable.
Kosta: Quantifiable and encouraging. I was determined to change my sedentary way of life but needed some coaching. I understood how the elastic bands provided resistance to exercise muscles and get the blood going. I liked the idea of exercising in private and I liked the idea of exercising while traveling, but I needed a trainer, you see, that I could turn on and off and put in my pocket.
Q: And you thought of inventing a mobile exercise device?
Kosta: Not right away – first I thought about school and sports and what worked for me when I was young. I grew up in Eastern Europe and we used isometric exercises. You don’t hear much about isometrics here in the states, although they’re a key part of all sorts of popular regimens like Pilates, yoga, planking, core training, etc…
Q: Did you and the other students use isometrics to train for sports?
Kosta: More for general fitness, but all the students competed to see how much force they could exert. Or I should say they competed to see how dramatically they could show exertion – the problem was that it wasn’t measured so some students just grunted loudly and pretended to exercise. And that’s when it hit me…
Q: The elastic band?
Kosta: Ha! No. That’s when I started thinking about inventing a mobile device that would encourage measured isometric exercise. That’s it in a nutshell.
It’s more than just isometrics, however. It coaches you to vary the pressure you exert and perform isometrics more actively, aerobically. As a scientist it makes sense for me to name TAO’s unique exercises Variatics™ or Variobics™ because of the variable metrics and active isometrics. My American partners tell me Vari-metrics™ or Iso-Aerobics™ will sound better to Americans but I insisted that we trademark all these terms.
Q: But how do you go from there to actually building a working prototype like TAO?
Kosta: The usual way of designing a control system. My doctorate is in mathematics, and my training is in Nuclear Physics, but much of my working life was spent designing and implementing process control systems for different industries – energy & manufacturing mostly. My days were filled with pressure sensors, accelerometers, software and firmware.
Q: But we’re talking about an organic body here.
Kosta: A control system is a control system, although for people the system has to be flexible and variable. I envisioned a prescribed, measured, analyzed, optimized, recorded (Vari-Metric™?) guided fitness system. And it had to be mobile.
Q: Is that when you set up a development team?
Kosta: Not right away. First I talked to my old hardware buddy, Angel, who was at Stanford working on their particle accelerator. Technically, what is necessary, is a set of sensors to measure the effort and important body parameters: heart rate, temperature, blood pressure, movements. The choice of a processor wasn’t so much a problem, more important was the architectural scheme and the user interface. Plus the question: nowadays when mobile devices are in everyone’s hands is it necessary to construct stand-alone device, or just a device communicating with the phone or tablet?
We decided to start with simpler one: sensor block with small display, communicating with the smart phone or tablet via Bluetooth.
Q: So it was just you two?
Kosta: It started with us, then expanded to include others whom I was working with on other projects with my company EZD Productions. We started filing patent applications immediately – two of these have been issued, 11 more are pending.
The concept for the user became a mobile gym, complete with trainer. Take it everywhere, exercise on the train, plane, during work breaks (during boring meetings!). Always, ‘though, the effort will be measured and archived and you get credit for being healthy. EZD developed several videogames and I knew how important gamification was to motivate, to incentivize.
Q: So TAO is a game?
Kosta: In a sense life is a game – we have noble goals but normally act in our own self-interest. America’s great constitution is the prime example of how to acknowledge human self-interest but guide it towards a sound purpose. TAO is an ancient concept for a balanced lifestyle. Our TAO device was conceived to reward healthy activity.
But to answer your question more directly, you can use the TAO device as a game controller, varying the pressure you exert to control an avatar. Currently you control a downhill skier and guide him through his flag gates. We are also creating a multiplayer sumo wrestler game using TAO, which is hilarious.
Q: Sumo seems somehow, strangely, appropriate… so when can I get TAO?
Kosta: We’re debuting at CES in January, 2014. We’ll launch a crowd funding campaign at that time too, so we can get a few more months of development to perfect our buttonless OS and do more testing of the phone app and the hardware. We should have a few thousand units ready for the public to test in Q3 or Q4 2014.
Q: TAO’s customers – who are they?
Kosta: Busy people like me who want to live better – who want to exercise despite the time and space limitations. Also trainers and health/fitness professionals who want to stay connected to their clients. We offer personalize programs so pros can design their own exercise and nutrition plans and track and encourage their client’s progress.
TAO also monitors all the activities the other devices do (steps, calories, heart rate, sleep, etc …) but you can actually exercise with TAO – that’s unique. It’s the only health & fitness device you need.
Q: Sounds like it’s been an interesting journey over the past few years
Kosta: It was miraculous to see how a simple idea became a new discipline in the field of wellness. It probably sounds, as Americans say, “corny,” but I feel good about this, about TAO, about encouraging people – all people – to be healthier. It’s made me happier. And the field for development is still widely open; only our imagination is the limit.