From wristworn to waistworn: Samsung spins out smart belt startup Welt

By Brian Dolan

This week Samsung announced that one of the device concepts it showed off at CES this year, a smart belt called Welt is spinning out of the electronics giant to make it a go of it as a startup. The device promises to help the wearer better track their food intake, keep tabs on their activity level, and manage their weight. It also looks just like a regular, black leather belt.

Welt comes from Samsung Electronics’ C-Lab in South Korea, an internal incubation program that first started in 2012 to help inspire a more creative company culture. If an employee's idea is chosen for C-Lab, they can take up to one year away from their primary job to develop it. Welt's team and four other C-Lab concepts were the first projects to spin out of the program as startups.

A promotional video interview that Samsung shot with Welt's two leads, Seong-ji Kang and Hye Kang Roh, at CES this year includes some details about the smart belt. The wearable's electronics are housed in a small metal box right near the Welt's buckle -- there are no additional sensors on the leather belt itself. The belt has a small microUSB port for a charger, and the founders say one charge can keep the belt tracking the wearer for up to seven days.

The device primarily tracks four things: your waist circumference, how many times you eat, how long you sit, and your step count. The smartphone companion app also includes a realtime graph that tracks the tension of the wearer's belt.

"We use a belt tension sensor. What it basically does is measure the pressure that is applied to the belt by your belly. If [the wearer pushes out] his belly a little bit you can see the graph is climbing. If he releases it, the graph is dropping. We use that characteristic in our algorithm to run the overeating [function]," Roh said in the video.

The pair noted they were looking to collaborate with fashion brands to embed Welt's technology, a strong hint for the new Samsung startup's initial business model plans.

While wristworn tracking devices are a far more established form factor, Welt isn't the first wearable startup to consider the smart belt opportunity.

While Lumo's first wearable for posture-tracking was often referred to as a smart belt back in 2012, the device didn't really function as one. The waistworn device was wrapped around the lower back, however, which made it pretty much a belt. Lumo tried other form factors over the years before arriving at its current iterations Lumo Lift and Lumo Run, which are both very small clip-on sensors.

In 2013 a team of undergraduate students at Rice University in Texas created a prototype belt that could potentially detect seizures in children with epilepsy. The belt detects changes in electrical conductivity in skin and respiration, both signs of an oncoming epileptic seizure, using electrodes that rest against the skin. A module on the belt can send a signal to a computer or smartphone via Bluetooth if it detects signs of a seizure.

At CES in 2015 a startup called Emotia demoed its prototype for a smart belt, called Belty, which looks very similar to Welt in terms of functionality. Belty's design was different though; it wasn't built to look like a typical dressy leather belt. Emotia's belt device was motorized to tighten or loosen itself so that the user stayed comfortable while moving around. The belt also tracked steps and sent this data to a companion app via Bluetooth. The belt also vibrated when a user had been sedentary for too long. Finally, it keeps tabs on changing waist measurements so that it can notify users if they are at risk for weight gain.

The first smart belt I heard about was at a Quantified Self conference in Palo Alto a few years ago. Quantified Self co-founder and founding executive editor of Wired, Kevin Kelly took the stage to explain a smart belt that helped the wearer find true north. He used the belt as an illustrative example of where many of these wearable sensors could take us. Coincidentally, Kelly used that same example in his forthcoming book, The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future:

"In 2004, Udo Wachter, an IT manager in Germany, took the guts of a small digital compass and soldered it into a leather belt. He added 13 miniature piezoelectric vibrators, like the ones that vibrate your smartphone, and buried them along the length of the belt. Finally he hacked the electronic compass so that instead of displaying north on a circular screen, it vibrated different parts of the belt when it was clasped into a circle. The section of the circle 'facing' north would always vibrate. When Udo put the belt on, he could feel northness on his waist. Within a week of always wearing the north belt, Udo had an unerring sensation of 'north'. It was unconscious. He could point in the direction without thinking. He just knew. After several weeks he acquired an additional heightened sense of location, of where he was in a city, as if he could feel a map. Here the quantification from digital tracking was subsumed into a wholly new bodily sensation. In the long term this is the destiny of many of the constant streams of data flowing from our bodily sensors. They won't be numbers; they will be new senses."

Watches and belts are among the few wearable devices that have been mainstream for generations. Wristworn digital health devices have trended in recent years. Clearly, Welt hopes waistworn devices are set to trend free run 5.0 youth

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NASA astronaut Scott Kelly checks out the Microsoft HoloLens aboard a space station on February 20, 2016. The device is part of NASA's project Sidekick, which is exploring the use of augmented reality to reduce crew training requirements and increase the efficiency with which astronauts can work in space. (Photo by NASA via Getty Images)