Is 2015 the Year We All Sequence Our Microbiomes?

Intriguing inventions for a healthier New Year


This is the era of an app for everything and everything in its app, and health is no exception. It makes sense: When you can try to monitor or improve anything with technology, why not use your devices to better yourself? 'Tis the season of resolutions after all. And while a lot of new health technology is silly, frivolous, or just plain doesn't work, there's some fun and useful stuff out there too. Here The Atlantic staffers share a few of the health apps, gadgets, and ideas to look forward to in 2015.

Vegan Cheese

Modernist Pantry LLC/Kickstarter

There’s an episode of Portlandia where the two main characterstry vegan food at a restaurant for the first time and afterward have to be escorted out onto a special patio to relieve themselves of the, ahem, pressures of vegetable-rich food. Indeed, the vegan diet has many downsides—expense, restrictiveness, a propensity toward flatulence—but living in gastrointestinal and ethical purity outweigh those for some people.

Skye Michael Conroy, a chef and author of three vegan cookbooks, has created a variety of “Instant Vegan Cheeses” so that at least the herbivores don’t have to sacrifice pizza. They’re made with plant-based starches, and allegedly, they can be shredded or melted just like the cow-based stuff.

“Unlike traditional dairy cheese or even some of the nut-based cheeses now available, his block and wheel cheeses do not require any fermentation or ripening period,” the Kickstarter notes. “They achieve their full flavor and texture (and can be eaten and enjoyed) within hours of making them.”

The starter kit comes with everything you need to make three varieties—brie, cheddar, or mozzarella—as well as a 24-page recipe guide that you can work through with your feminist knitting circle.

Olga Khazan



Modern cubicle dwellers are about two steps removed from Gollum—hunched over, pasty, probably talking to themselves. At least one study published in an actual scientific journal has suggested that Tolkien's cave-dwelling cretin may have been evil in part because of Vitamin D deficiency. So too, perhaps, with office workers deprived of sunlight. But how to know if one's dark urges stem from a black and sludgey soul or just from not going outside enough?

The SunSprite is a little device you can clip onto your clothes that measures exposure to sunlight, keeping track with a row of LCD lights on the front. Like everything does these days, it also syncs with a smartphone app to show your sunshiney stats. It might inspire the indoor kids of the world to take their sandwich outside for lunch—and in the event someone takes it too far, it also sends alerts when UV ray exposure gets too high.

Julie Beck

TEC Home Ear Cleaner

Clear Ear Inc.

Here’s something you probably never wanted to know about an Internet stranger: In college, I had to make a trip to the student-health center to get chocolate pudding flushed out of my ears. I won’t go too far into the story, except to say that it involved a food fight, a few days of partial deafness, and a syringe that shot very cold water at a very high speed. If anything can turn a person off of pudding, it’s getting a blast of ice water to the ear canal, but there are some things Q-tips just can’t do.

In fact, when it comes to ears, Q-tips can’t do much of anything—at best, they just push wax further in, and at worst they puncture an eardrum—and around 12 million Americans go to the doctor every year specifically to get their ears cleaned. The TEC Home system, as the name implies, promises the same heavy-duty, professional-level cleaning at home. The whole thing seems much more pleasant: The machine heats the water to a comfortable temperature and then sprays it against the side of the ear canal to loosen whatever’s inside. There’s even a chamber at the bottom to collect anything that comes out, snack food or otherwise.

Cari Romm

Absolute Knowledge of Health-Behavior Psychology

William Hook/Flickr

People who have iPhones eat an average of 200 calories more every day than people who have Android phones. People with wearable pedometers like Fitbit take an average of 5,000 more steps per day than people who track their steps with apps on their smart phones. Those statistics and more are brought to you by the makers of Pact—the app that lets people make diet-and-fitness related promises and then pay real money to the other users if they don’t live up to their word. Or, as the company puts it (“The app that gives cash rewards for living healthy—paid by the members who don't!”) This sort of app will continue to acquire, analyze, and share data like this that will tell us interesting things about human behavior, often in ways superior to academic psychology and sociology experiments. Including that people are more likely to stick to diets and workouts when they are accountable to other people who are poised to take their money. Ubiquitous data availability is scary to some people, sure, but if you don’t like the idea of being an unwilling participant in all sorts of ongoing science experiments, you can always … I don’t know how to finish that sentence.

James Hamblin



23andme is so passe. You could get your genome sequenced, like a rube, or you could get some data about your microbiome--the thousands of species of bacteria that live on and in the human body. Microbiomes are super "in" right now, scientifically speaking, with researchers studying how these bacteria could affect everything from food cravings to depression. For $400, UBiome will send you a kit so you can swab yourself all over (you can just do your gut for $90), and then the company will analyze the bacterial DNA from the samples. Then they'll send you some charts, so you can see what's been living inside you all this time. You can also compare it to the bacteria found in vegans, or heavy drinkers, the site says, or keep on swabbing to see what happens to your microbiome over time, if all that broccoli you've been eating is really doing anything.

Julie Beck

Hush Earplugs


I sleep in earplugs every night because I live next-door to gamers in a “dog-friendly” building. They work well—sometimes too well. Like, not-hearing-the-alarm-and-putting-on-eyeliner-on-the metro well. Hush earplugs help solve this problem by blocking out all sound and syncing with your iPhone. Then when your alarm goes off, you still hear it, and you’re the only one who does. So your jobless boyfriend can continue frolicking through dreamland, or something.

Bonus: It was created by three guys who are all named Daniel.

Olga Khazan

Aurora Sleep-Enhancing Headband


Paul McCartney composed the tune to “Yesterday” after hearing it in a dream. James Cameron wrote Terminator after a nightmare about a robot. The periodic table of the elements, the design of the sewing machine, the plots of Frankenstein and Twilight—all breakthroughs that their creators first made while asleep.

Those hoping for their own sleep-induced flash of brilliance may want to look into lucid dreaming, a self-aware state of sleep that makes it easier to remember dreams. The Aurora headband bills itself as a sort of lucid-dreaming starter kit: Sensors inside the headband monitor your brain waves to detect when you enter REM sleep, the state where lucid dreaming happens, and then activate a series of lights and noises—strong enough to alert your dream self to the fact that you’re asleep, but presumably gentle enough to keep your real self from waking up. And if you haven’t had your stroke of genius by morning, take comfort in the fact that lucid dreaming may also make people smarter during their waking hours.

Cari Romm

Posture Shirt


This “shirt” is intended to improve your posture by pulling back on your shoulder blades using good old-fashioned physical force. It was released recently by a company that’s selling them for the (ridiculous) price of $95. It’s not a new concept, just a new marketing approach, but it’s still intriguing for 2015, which will probably be another year of health devices aimed at counteracting the health effects of our addictions to devices, e.g. this shirt as a reaction to everyone being hunched over their phones and computers all day. I am not endorsing this medically, but it probably is safer than some of the homemade devices I’ve come up with. And it might be good if everyone were forced to wear one all the time. How funny everyone would look, sitting up perfectly straight, always. Can there be a hat that forces a smile?

James Hamblin