Portland Digital eXperience: Nike, the Quantified Self, and putting the geekery into fitness

nike+ basketball and trainingIf technology has done anything, it’s kept us honest. Social networks have become people research databases, your search history is so very easily trackable, and don’t even try and wrap your head around the various ways that smartphones and the mobile app takeover have harnessed your data.

This fountain of data has given birth to the Quantified Self movement, the idea of using various technologies to track and analyze your life. There’s a bit of a chicken or the egg argument here; did the Quantified Self movement start as a reaction to others wanting our information, or did our own desire to control this cause the Facebooks and the Googles to go after it? Either way, we’re tracking and being tracked.

Companies like Path, Lift, and Saga are all experimenting in this arena, but surprisingly it isn’t tech-specific startups that are really making a go at it — it’s fitness companies, like FitBit, BodyMedia, and leading the charge, naturally, is Nike.

At Portland Digital eXperience this week, Nike digital marketing exec Ricky Engelberg ran us through the brand’s attempt at helping humans analyze their bodies. “We’re able to take technology and it make it seamlessly blend into your shoes [or Fuelband], giving you more information than you’ve ever had before,” he says. “We have the opportunity to make people better.”

As a once-proud owner and formerly unflinchingly loyal Fuelband wearer, I can identify with what he’s saying. I came home from this past SXSW with a new unit, hot off the shelves, immediately strapped it onto my wrist, and wore it without fail. Really, that thing did not come off, and months after I did remove it, I’m still getting rid of this tan line.

I loved the software and religiously checked my Fuel for the day and connected the app and did everything you could do. But then one day about a month ago, it died, I took it off to charge it… and I never put it back on.

I really never knew why until now: It’s because the Fuelband wasn’t nerdy enough for me (as a sidenote, this panel was called “Humanizing Technology,” but I found it more appealing to think of it as nerding up working out). As Engelberg started talking about some of what you get from Nike+ Running, Nike+ Basketball, and Nike+ Training and embedding analytical elements into your shoes, I got interested. What was this thing on my wrist and what is Fuel anyway? From the sounds of it, the Fuelband is a great way to bring the fun of self-analysis to Quantified Self, or even fitness to the half-hearted consumers — but if you really want to track this stuff, Nike has a multifaceted approach and it goes deeper than just using the Fuelband. As Engelberg put it, “We know a lot about how the foot works” — which makes a lot more sense to me than strapping something on my wrist. Nike shoes with Nike+ are really able to see how fast you’re running, how high you’re jumping, how much effort you’re giving. 

And there’s plenty more in the works: Nike is teaming up with Microsoft on creating personal fitness tech using the Kinect. “The first time we saw [the Kinect], were were like ‘This thing is amazing, it has so much potential,’” says Engelberg. “So we’re working with Microsoft to make the best personal trainer in the world with a full body assessment and tailoring it to each person’s needs.” The smattering of currently available Kinect fitness games are more fun than effective, so the bar is set low, but expectation — personally — for Nike to pull this off is high.

Nike will also be introducing something called Fuel Prints, which Engelberg characterizes as “the new scale.” The feature will give you a seven-minute assessment of your personal fitness health and help you determine whether your current workout routine is helping you reach your goals. Also in the pipeline is more Fuel-made content: The brand’s integration with Path will continue, and instead of just posting your Fuel score peaks, that information will be able to be paired with photo and video evidence if you so choose.

Much of the skepticism surrounding the Quantified Self movement has to do with how well we’re able to take data and do anything with it; I might see that I’m not reaching my goals, but can I specifically tell why? And is an app or a service or a product able to tell me how to do it better? Those are the questions that Nike is hoping to answer by expanding its Fuelband and Nike+ features, and democratizing the fitness industry — appealing to all of us body-tracking-numbers geeks out there in the process.