Julie Kientz sees tech as a tool for better health

While in graduate school, Julie Kientz had a nightmare that any college student could relate to: she could see her classmates going to class and studying together, all while they could see her sleeping the day away. When the admitted night owl finally woke up, she hatched the idea for Buddy Clock—a “peer pressure alarm clock,” as she calls it. Buddy Clock kept tabs on when she went to bed, woke up in the morning and if she hit the snooze button before class.

Kientz knew she was onto something when a few friends she’d recruited to use the mobile tool started asking about their own sleep patterns: “Do you have data? How did I sleep over the last couple weeks? Can I look at my graphs?”

That sense of discovery spawned a career predicated on using technology to help others and improve their health. Kientz brought that passion to the UW in 2008 and, most recently, was named one of MIT Technology Review’s 35 Innovators Under 35 for 2013.

Shortly after arriving at the UW, she partnered with the UW Medicine Sleep Center and School of Nursing to continue her sleep studies. Her motivation was driven in part by two disparate factors: people were interested in healthy sleeping habits but, at the same time, didn’t do much about them. “It takes a back seat for many people,” Kientz says. “People are really bad about knowing the impact a lack of sleep has on them.”

Enter Lullaby. The digital toolkit—currently a prototype—mixes sensors, cameras and a tablet computer to record the environmental factors that might impact someone’s sleeping habits—namely temperature, noise levels and the brightness of the room. Lullaby is one of many projects Kientz has been a part of since joining the UW as an assistant professor in the Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering and an adjunct assistant professor in the Information School and Computer Science & Engineering.

She has worked on tech tools to help parents track the growth and development of infants, digital yoga lessons to help the blind, mobile tools to help the visually impaired locate objects around the house and more. The common thread through each project is a desire to help people through new technology. That drive was readily apparent when Dr. Nathanial Watson, co-director of the UW Medicine Sleep Center, first met Kientz to discuss Lullaby. “She really tries to think about things that others may not,” he says. “I’m excited about the potential of her work.”