Fitness Tech Needs to Pick Up the Pace

By Nathaniel Mott , written on May 21, 2012

From The News Desk

Branching out is hard. Once a company is set in its ways, turning and doing something different is always a challenge. Take Jawbone’s first effort to leave the audio market, the Jawbone Up, which served as a warning to the rest of the fitness industry.

In a world filled with glorified pedometers the Up was to be something different, an all-in-one device that would measure sleeping habits and serve as an alarm on top of its mundane step-counting duties.

The Up was the future of fitness tech. Until the wristbands stopped working.

No warnings. No rhyme or reason. One day the Up was working, and the next it wasn’t. Jawbone issued a “no questions asked” refund, reimbursing every Jawbone Up owner for their purchase.

That was in December, and the Jawbone Up hasn’t seen a re-release. Jawbone is acting like they’ve forgotten the Up; there’s a page with a sign-up form to find out when the wristband will enter the market again, but besides that the company’s been playing mum.

The Up was one of the few products in recent years that aimed to go beyond counting steps and calculating calories. The FitBit offers a full suite of products, but each ties in with their pedometer. Nike’s FuelBand is novel in that it uses a proprietary unit for activity, but the way it gathers information is similar to almost every other pedometer on the market.

There’s clearly a large number of people that are turning to technology to get fit, as companies continue to pump out new iterations of the basic pedometer concept. If so many are willing to purchase what is, essentially, last century’s tech, how quickly would they purchase something truly transformative?

It all comes down to the Internet of Things, a concept where items would communicate with one another via the Internet. A connected wristband would be able to receive information from other fitness equipment, gathering necessary data so the user wouldn’t have to.

For example, once the wristband was close enough to a weight, the two should communicate just how much the user lifts as the wristband measures sets and repetitions. Later the band could communicate with the user's sneakers and cell phone, keeping track of his movements and figuring out if he's running, playing a sport, or riding a bike.

In an age where everything can be measured, from bytes to calories to Fuel to grams, the fitness market has fallen behind. The fall of the Up has left a warning sign for other companies, flashing “DO NOT ENTER” in huge red letters.

Those companies that do enter the fitness sphere tend to target the software market, building services like RunKeeper, Fitocracy, and WeightTraining. Brian Wang, co-founder and CEO of Fitocracy, says that the company has no intention of entering the hardware market.

“We know software,” he says, “And we don’t have the resources or the inclination to enter the hardware market.” Instead, Fitocracy ties in with other companies’ hardware to gather its users’ data. (While I enjoy Fitocracy, entering my workout data puts a huge damper on the fun that the service is meant to offer.)

WeightTraining’s VP of marketing Jeffrey Crews describes his ideal device as such: “The ultimate tool would be something that could track every single exercise of a person (recognizing the exercise, weight involved, amount of sets/reps, along with all the other current features), sync with an online community...” Sound familiar?

Software can only take fitness so far. While services like Fitocracy and WeightTraining are doing the best that they can to make people more active, both services rely on user input or other hardware to gather data. Much as powerful new computers have enabled the software that we rely on today, fitness software is waiting for newly improved, more powerful hardware.

One of the most disruptive features of the Up was its activity monitor. If the person wearing the Up hadn’t moved in a certain amount of time the Up would vibrate, telling him that it was time to get up and shake loose.

The fitness market could use that same signal. It’s stagnated, and now is the time to do something different. As more and more Americans’ lives are dominated by obesity and the health problems that come with it, getting people off the couch may be one of the most important goals a company should have.

Fitness tech, you’ve gotten lazy. It’s time to pick up the pace.