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The next great platform war is coming … to your wrist

On Christmas morning my son unwrapped the present of his dreams: a LEGO Mindstorm kit. Forget about the toy you grew up with; Mindstorms are basically Super Legos – programmable robots that kids (and more than a few grownups) build to face off in Battlebot contests.

At the heart of the magic sits the Mindstorm’s “brain,” a clear screened box the size of a deck of cards that you can jack straight into your laptop and key in the commands to make it do … pretty much anything. After building out a few easy ones – like a fully mobile LEGO crocodile with articulated legs and tail and a motion-sensing set of jaws that snap when you wave a finger at it – we did what fathers and sons have always done; we hopped on YouTube to troll the outrageous. What we saw boggled the mind.

Enterprising and clever programmers have used LEGO Mindstorms to create robots that can solve a Rubik’s cube in under a minute. They’ve created mini Segway-like robots with self-balancing gyroscopes that won’t tip over. And they’ve built a Beer Machine. Inventions, in other words, that only a few decades ago, would have been locked up in a DARPA lab –not hanging out in a kid’s toybox.

From mashup hacks with Xbox Kinect controllers to after-market peripheral manufacturers, LEGO never imagined a tenth of what the Mindstorm community has invented. It’s the kind of unlocked creativity that Clay Shirky explains as the unforeseen dividend of our abundant free time in his book Cognitive Surplus. And we may be about to see something similar in fitness technology.

From smart sensors to Fitbits to Fuel Bands, we are in what Columbia Professor of Information Theory Tim Wu calls the early techno-Utopianist arc of the “Information Curve.” Kevin Kelly and his Quanitified Self acolytes eagerly track and analyze every bit of personal data they can, happily conscripting themselves into the dual roles of lab rat and lab coat. If we are to believe boosters like Tim Ferriss, we have the knowledge to all become Superman – in under four hours per week.

At the same time, we are seeing a rush of capital and innovation flood this market segment, turning a formerly blue ocean of first mover opportunity into a bloodbath race to the $100 price point for a killer app that makes working out, sleeping right, and tracking it all easy. The money and innovation isn’t simply spent on inventing new gadgets (although there are no shortage of those); it’s being spent on building whole platforms for the gadgets and apps to operate on.

In his book The Master Switch Wu argues that all information networks, from tin-can telegraphs of the old West to BBC and Voice Of America radio to Hollywood movie studios to today’s Web, evolve along a predictable and consistent arc: They all begin utopian and democratic, filled with the promise of revolutionizing society with new ways to create and share knowledge. And they all end, he notes, centralized and hegemonic, tightly regulated under the thumb of a practical monopolist.

Wu highlights Apple as the current title-holder of this approach, championing a hierarchical closed system that discourages outside innovation (with the tightly controlled exception of its app store) and routinely disregards other ecosystem players (Adobe Flash, USBs). In contrast, he cites Google, whose aspirational quest to organize the world’s information, while remaining not-Evil, is (hopefully) a champion of the democratic impulse to keep information free, transparent and open source.

Unsurprisingly, we’re seeing the fitness technology landscape shape up much as Wu predicts: giants like Nike rolling out the Apple “closed system” playbook, and looking to sew up market share with proprietary standards before anyone else can scale (does anyone even know what a Fuel point is?) And as with Apple’s App store, they are creating opportunities for third party input (which we’re very excited about); whether this becomes a truly collaborative enterprise or just another version of digital sharecropping remains to be seen.

On the other extreme are companies such as Zephyr, who have created an intelligent multi-sensor that users as diverse as the US military, the NFL, and nursing homes are all able to configure to their particular needs. Zephyr, who have quietly built out their capabilities for the past several years, shot to prominence when Under Armour debuted their E39 vest at the 2010 NFL combine with Zephyr’s tech inside.

Looking more than a little like the flashing beacon on Tony Stark’s Iron Man suit, the E39 goes well beyond the pedestrian steps taken/calories burned measurements of most of the v. 1.0 smartfit gadgets; it includes acceleration, vertical leap, G-Force, ECG, respiration and spatial positioning. This kind of core versatility, coupled with Zephyr’s philosophical stance to let user communities evolve and adapt applications that they think are the most relevant for themselves, offers an alternate path to a potential Brave New Fuel lockdown.

If we can preserve the right to tinker a little longer, before Wu’s Master Switch flips to CLOSED – if we can explore, adapt, learn and play with all of these sensors, and figure out not just what can they do, but what can we do with their help – we stand the chance of co-creating a host of innovations and applications that outstrip what even the best-funded tech giants could conceive in isolation.

After all, if we live in an age where we’re not even smarter than our fifth graders’ toy robots, then we can’t figure this out alone.

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