Apple touts impact of health apps but Siri learns pop trivia

By Brian Dolan
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Brian Dolan, Editor, MobiHealthNewsAt Apple's annual World Wide Developers Conference this week in Cupertino, California, CEO Tim Cook noted that the company now had 650,000 apps available for iOS devices, with 225,000 specifically designed for the iPad. To date, some 30 billion apps have been downloaded, Cook said, and Apple has paid developers $5 billion since it launched the AppStore a few years ago.

After running through the top line metrics, Cook shared a video that highlighted just a few apps that had made an impact in people's lives. Of the four apps that the video spotlighted, three were health-related. One helped visually impaired or blind people better navigate streets and even hike through the woods. Another helped elementary schools kids and university students alike more easily learn human anatomy with rich visuals and animations. A third profiled app helped kids with autism and speech impediments to more easily communicate and develop their communication skills.

"Walking in the forest allows my brain to switch off and start dreaming," visually impaired iPhone user Per Busch, who lives in Kassel, Germany, said during the video. "I live next to this huge, lovely forest, but I couldn't walk in this forest because the problem is I couldn't find my way. When I discovered Ariadne's GPS app, I could walk independently for hours and hours."

"I wanted to develop an app that would help blind people explore the world. Many blind people use Apple devices. I didn't even think about choosing a different platform,"  Giovanni Luca Ciaffoni, the developer of the Ariadne GPS app says during the video. "With my app they can have information about their position, bookmark different points, and tell when they are approaching that point. It's great, people write me from around the world saying 'Your app has changed my life'." (While it wasn't mentioned at this event, MobiHealthNews has previously covered another app designed for the visually impaired: LookTel, formerly known as SeeScan.)

The video also showed elementary school students in Mumbai, India learn about human anatomy from an iPad app that was projected on a large, white sheet in their classroom.

"What's amazing for us, is that our apps have been used to teach advanced level anatomy at major universities around the world and the same apps are also being used in an elementary school classroom in India," John Moore, CEO, of 3D4 Medical said. "We originally started off as a medical stock image company, but when the iPad came out everything changed, because then we were not just [a] medical reference [company] we were also able to do medical learning -- all using animations that are beautifully highlighted on the retina display and also with the processing power we could push the boundaries of what could be done with the technology."

After a brief feature about couch surfing and house rental app AirBnB, the video focused on a mother and daughter who use an app called Toca Boca.

"Mackenzie's speech is somewhat difficult to understand," Renena Joy in Halifax, Nova Scotia says. "Her palate doesn't work the way that it should. In the world of speech pathology, the iPad is a tool that has definitely been embraced. We use Toca Boca to facilitate her describing skills. I think the coolest thing about those apps are that they are so engaging and so fun [that] kids don't realize they are actually working on particular skills. It has become a real toy for her -- a tool for me -- but a toy for her."

The video ends with a few quick shots of users thanking various app developers while holding up their iOS devices. Included in the half dozen or so apps were Mayo Clinic's recently launched app and the Nike Training Club app.

These health-related apps made up many of those that made cameos on the WWDC stage this week. When the video concluded, Cook remarked: "It is a great reminder of what it is all about and why all of us do what we do. On behalf of Apple, we would like to thank all of you in the developer community for the incredible apps that you have done for us."

While Cook pointed to these apps as why Apple and its developers do the work they do, the updates and new features that Apple announced for the latest version of its mobile operating system largely ignored health-related apps. The most glaring of these updates were for Siri.

With iOS 6, Siri, the voice-enabled personal assistant feature that first launched with iPhone 4S, has now learned all about sports trivia. For example, Siri now knows the heights of NBA basketball players. It's not just sports: Siri knows a lot about restaurants now, too, thanks to tighter integration with Yelp and OpenTable. For example, Siri can now help book a table for iPhone users. What's more, Siri has become something of a movie buff. Want to know the latest movies that actor Scarlet Johanssen has appeared in? Siri can help you out.

The one new function that Siri has gained, which might help almost any app developer, is how to launch apps. Voice-enabled app launching should make any app easier to find and quicker to boot up.

Still, if apps like Toca Boca, 3D4 Medical, Ariadne GPS, Mayo Clinic, and Nike Training Club, which as Apple's video showed have had a real impact on their users' lives, why isn't Apple teaching Siri to be a better personal health assistant? Why start with trivia?

Of course, that's how Siri's much more accomplished voice-enabled personal assistant, IBM's Watson, began with its appearance on Jeopardy! It's now going to medical school.

If Siri truly has conquered sports, dining, and film -- and we'll have to wait for iOS 6 to launch later this year to know that for sure -- here's hoping that Siri starts attending health behavior change courses next. If that happens, who knows what health-related testimonials future WWDC videos might include.

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