Basis: Moving beyond the glorified pedometer

By Nathaniel Mott , written on November 29, 2012

From The News Desk

It's been a big month for fitness junkies. Jawbone re-released its Up wristband, a fitness tracker originally marred by malfunctioning batteries, and Basis is today releasing its long-coming take on the wristband-as-exercise-companion. The company has been working on its device for years, and in that time it has watched the original Up fall from its pedestal, eyed Nike's entry into the market with its FuelBand, and been subjected to a lawsuit from Body Media.

Basis, like all of the previously-mentioned devices and probably a dozen others, combines data analytics and fitness to help users better – and better understand – themselves. The company's wristband is armed to the teeth with sensors, equipped with the ability to measure skin temperature, ambient temperature, perspiration, heart rate, and movement. (And you thought James Bond's watches were cool.)

Basis CEO Jef Holove is well aware of the crowded market Basis is entering, and he says that the company's focus on gathering and interpreting more than a simple swing of the arm should serve as a differentiating factor between it and the competition. The company's product could better measure, say, something like yoga, which can get a practitioners' heart rate up without involving a whole lot of arm movement. Other solutions, which largely rely on accelerometers, might miss this activity – Basis shouldn't.

Gathering data is only part of the equation, however. Knowing that a user's heart rate increased at a certain time or that he happened to move in a certain way is next to worthless without offering a method for interpreting and acting on that information. It's rare that someone out of shape doesn't know that they aren't quite as fit as Usain Bolt; what they need to know is what to do about that fact.

Holove demoed Basis' "dashboard," a hub that offers detailed, hour-by-hour analytics of users' movement, sleep, temperature, etc. as well as "healthy habits," gamified goals meant to encourage healthier behavior. The two inform each other, with each users' habits and the associated goals changing based on their current activity and commitment to the Basis platform.

As Holove clicked through his own dashboard I was able to see how this user-influenced goal setting played out on a week-by-week basis. (Sorry.) Basis started Holove out with baby steps like "wear the watch 12 hours a day for two days" or "walk more than 5,000 steps two days this week" and became progressively more involved. And, when Holove happened to miss his goals during a trip to China, the system automatically dialed back its expectations so Holove wouldn't be discouraged by the next week's goals.

From its hardware to its software, Basis seems like a solid step forward for fitness trackers. I've long been unhappy with the currently-available hardware, which often amount to little more than glorified pedometers, and Basis is finally doing something besides squeezing an accelerometer into a wristband. The software that gives these sensors purpose is still based on gamified analytics, but it appears to be more user-aware and less kitschy than other solutions.

It isn't all egg whites and whey protein shakes, however. Basis is shipping without any form of mobile support, a cardinal sin in the current environment. This isn't as big a problem as it would be if Basis measured, say, caloric intake, but it's hard to justify the lack of a mobile app after working on a product for years. Holove says that the company is working on getting these apps shipped and that they didn't want to further delay launch just for mobile.

Then there's BodyMedia. The company, which makes a fitness-tracking armband, sued Basis on February 2 after Basis' debut at CES, alleging that the product infringes on BodyMedia's patents. Holove says that the dispute won't further delay the launch of Basis, and that the company has asked the patent office to examine the validity of BodyMedia's patents. A preliminary ruling on one patent sided with Basis, but the company has a long way to go before the BodyMedia suit becomes a thing of the past.

Still, Basis has finally shipped. It isn't perfect, and it's doubtful that there will ever be a one-size-fits-all solution in this space, but it's here. The fight for your wrist – and your health – continues to heat up.