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How gaming and data are driving wearable fitness technology

The last year has seen a ton of new health gadgets, widgets and apps hit the market, all looking to crack the code on coaxing tubby Americans to move more. For a glimpse at just some of the ones we’ve covered, check out this, this, this, and this.

But before you run out to get the next blinky shiny device promising to jumpstart a new you in the New Year, it might be helpful to put this broader digital fitness trend in some context.

From motivational apps to “smart” jewelry like Nike’s Fuel Band and Jawbone’s Up, the developers and manufacturers in this space are making two big behavioral bets on the best way to turn couch potatoes into hard bodies. Before you buy anything, you need to know what they are and how likely they are to work for you.

Big Bet #1: The Quantified Self

Ever since the Nike+ debuted in 2009, (see here for a great Wired overview of its impact all we’ve been riding a growing swell of interest in “measure it to manage it” personal data collection. At the pinnacle of that particular niche of geekdom sits the Quantified Self community, whose “Self Knowledge Through Numbers” mantra veers curiously close to an article of faith for a bunch of scientists.

Adherents measure almost everything in their lives, from calories consumed, to hours slept, watts burned and miles traveled – all in a relentless effort to tweak, tune, hack, and refine their baser instincts into their best selves (see Tim Ferriss’ “Four Hour Everything” franchise as a pop-culture example).

Verdict: This is inescapable in the current market – pretty much all of these companies have hitched their wagon to the assumption that “If I can visualize my activity, I’ll be more motivated, and stick with it longer.”

The problem is that there’s a persistent gap between the activity reports, charts and graphs these companies promote and that remarkably sticky issue of human inertia. After all, trend lines and scatter plots are one thing; a well-timed kick in the pants, is another. Put another way, you can have all the data in the world, but without motivation, it’s just noise.

And for those self-starting self trackers who delight in every element of the game, there’s a different trap: spending so much time “fixin’ to get ready to” that their activity-to-analysis ratio tanks and they’re back on the couch where they started – a whole lot smarter to be sure, but none the wiser (and not much leaner).

Recommendation: The team at Basis, who pre-sold their entire inventory for the holidays in the first week of their launch, does a great job tackling the problem of inertia head-on, working on building habits one at a time so they stick, and translating raw data into actionable insights. If you don’t want to get bogged down in the information, and need more gentle and helpful nudges to get out and do more, then Basis might be a good match.

Big Bet #2: The Game-ification of Everything

This one’s been all the talk at think tank confabs for the past few years, from SXSW to TED and beyond (see one here)

At its most ambitious, adding a “game layer” to our frenzied lives is supposed to turn us into choose-our-own adventure versions of Pavlov’s dogs – checking in on location apps, coming back to our social network pages every hour, snapping up daily deals. For anyone that’s been suckered into buying, selling, gifting or grifting points, badges, vegetables or other markers of digital accomplishment and clogging friends’ feeds or inboxes – you’ve been gameified.

Still, our current fitness world, filled as it is with flatscreen TVs and Stairmasters, could do with a little more fun and games.

Transparent though they may be, these efforts to engage our sense of competition and accomplishment are helping more of us stick with our regimes, and get the dual benefit of charting progress and comparing ourselves to others. A recent Atlantic cover story rightly outed the current gaming fever as a resurgence of psychologist B.F Skinner’s Behaviorism. After years of battling the middle age bulge, the author found success by harnessing a few of these apps and devices to lose thirty pounds and, at least at press time, keep it off.

Verdict: Despite the hype, Game-ification 1.0 is done – just look at Zynga’s stock price. Location-based tech-darling Foursquare has revamped its business model after the novelty wore off their check-ins, and we expect a similar drop off in stickiness with most of these first wave fitness platforms.

Nike’s first Fuel effort fits squarely in the category. Unless you’re such an enthusiast that you’re intrigued by the score-keeping and tracking for it’s own sake, don’t hold out excessive hope that this is going to do for you what your Nordic-Trak rusting in the basement never could.

Given development lag times, though, expect to see more of these early attempts at game-ified fitness flush through the pipeline next year. As late as June, I advised a developer creating a new online/offline interactive wellness game for one of the big three console makers, and they were firmly stuck in the “badges and widgets” ghetto. The intention is good, but in terms of practical effects on the average exerciser, this stuff is pulling grade school levers when we need the grad school version.

Recommendation: If you want engagement and distraction from the usual grind of working out, and crave the actual or virtual company of others as you just do it, stay tuned for the new developments coming out of Portland and Nike’s Fuel program.

Just announced late this year, Nike is opening up the Fuel universe to third-party developers and launching a partnership with Xbox Kinect. 

While in the past, online exercise hasn’t played out to much effect (see Nintendo’s Wii Fit hype cycle), Nike’s efforts with Microsoft and their interactive video games go well beyond air tennis in your living room – things like harnessing advanced movement tracking/analysis and dropping you into games as your favorite Nike pro athlete. You will actually be able to Fuel points you’ve earned in real life as points in the games.

Think about that for a minute: Fake real pro athletes in 2D powered by real amateur athletes in 3D! How’s that for a postmodern take on losing your spare tire?

By kicking down the walls between their platform, their third-party developers, and their users’ Xbox and their physical activities, Nike puts us on the edge of some interesting potential progressions in fitness technology.


If you’re a die-hard early adopter who delights in newest-coolest and doesn’t mind the occasional bug, then jump in. There are more than enough interesting products out there right now to keep you glued to your wrist and the tech blogs that can tell you what those lights and numbers actually mean.

For the rest of us, 2013 is cooking up some truly intriguing developments, like sensors that tell us much more than steps counted or calories burned, and digital worlds that swallow us whole, only to spit us out again, more fit and more engaged with our physical selves.

Quantified and Game-ified Selves are here to stay, so the question is: what counts, and who’s keeping score?

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