The next great platform war is coming … to your wrist

does fitness technology have to the host of next great platform war fuelband hOn 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.

Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Grow veggies indoors and shower more efficiently

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!

These 13 gadgets walk a fine line between ingenious and insane

The annual avalanche of devices and gadgets is astounding, but how many will succeed? A few are destined to spark new trends, while the majority fade deservedly into obscurity. We look at some gadgets on the border of brilliant and bonkers.
Emerging Tech

Photosynthesizing artificial leaf may be the air-cleaning tool we’ve dreamed of

Engineers from the University of Illinois at Chicago have invented an artificial leaf which could both clean up our air and provide a cost-effective type of fuel. Here's how it works.

Take some time to reminisce with the 25 best Sega Genesis games of all time

Although the company has since fallen into obscurity, Sega was an indisputable titan throughout the '90s. That said, here are 25 best Sega Genesis games that helped define its fabled decade.
Emerging Tech

Descending at an angle could be key to landing heavier craft on Mars

Landing on Mars is a challenge: The heavier the craft, the more difficult a safe landing becomes. Scientists propose using retropropulsion engines and angling the craft to create a pressure differential to land heavier crafts in the future.
Emerging Tech

Ant-inspired walking robot navigates without GPS by using polarized light

What do you get if you cross Boston Dynamics and Ant-Man? You get Antbot, a robot from the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) which uses ant-like navigation to move around without the aid of GPS.
Emerging Tech

InSight’s heat probe will dig 16 feet beneath the surface of Mars

New images from NASA's InSight mission to Mars have confirmed that the lander succeeded in setting the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package instrument onto the surface, from where a self-hammering spike will burrow downwards.
Emerging Tech

White spots on Ceres are evidence of ancient ice volcanoes erupting

Scientists are pouring over data collected by NASA's Dawn mission to learn about the dwarf planet Ceres and the bright white spots observed at the bottom of impact craters. They believe that these spots are evidence of ice volcanoes.
Emerging Tech

NASA to launch SPHEREx mission to investigate the origins of our universe

NASA is launching an ambitious mission to map the entire sky to understand the origins of the universe. The Spectro-Photometer for the History of the Universe, Epoch of Reionization and Ices Explorer (SPHEREx) mission will launch in 2023.
Emerging Tech

Probes exploring Earth’s hazardous radiation belts enter final phase of life

The Van Allen probes have been exploring the radiation belts around Earth for seven years. Now the probes are moving into the final phase of their exploration, coming closer to Earth to gather more data before burning up in the atmosphere.
Emerging Tech

How can digital art created on obsolete platforms be preserved?

As the lines between art and technology continue to blur, digital art experiences become more commonplace. But these developments are raising an important question for art conservationists: How should digital artworks be preserved?
Emerging Tech

Statistician raises red flag about reliability of machine learning techniques

Machine learning is everywhere in science and technology. But how reliable are these techniques really? A statistician argues that questions of accuracy and reproducibility of machine learning have not been fully addressed.
Emerging Tech

Chandra X-ray telescope uncovers evidence of the universe’s missing matter

Where is all of the matter in the universe? NASA's Chandra telescope has uncovered evidence of hot gas strands in the vicinity of a quasar which could explain the missing third of matter which has puzzled astronomers for years.
Emerging Tech

Wish you could fly? You totally can with these top-of-the-line drones

In just the past few years, drones have transformed from a geeky hobbyist affair to a full-on cultural phenomenon. Here's a no-nonsense rundown of the best drones you can buy right now, no matter what kind of flying you plan to do.