Admit it: Fitness trackers are as much about showing off as working out

Wear Next 111014
The first time I saw a fitness tracker in person, I was pretty sure I was looking at some subtle evolution of those old “Livestrong” bracelets.

In retrospect, I don’t know that I was all that far off. At their heart, both products are designed for very specific things. In the case of the silicone Lance Armstong bracelets, that thing is fundraising for cancer research. With FitBit and the like, it’s personal fitness. Each are admirable goals in their own respect.

Visibility plays a role in both objects. As callous as this might sound, it’s hard to imagine Livestrong becoming the phenomenon it was, were it not also regarded as a sort of fashion statement. The bright yellow bracelet was a sign visible from afar that you were part of some sort of (non-exclusive) group. That you were doing your part. That you cared. Heck, there was even a minor sub-industry of knockoffs — off-brand versions of the bands manufactured without any of those life-saving goals in mind.

Is there any quicker way to make a friend for life than by competing to find out who can walk the most steps on a given day?

Last week, Jawbone announced two new products: The Up 3, essentially a refinement of the company’s successful wrist-worn fitness tracker, and the Up Move, a $50 tracker that charts a new course for Jawbone. The Move has a lot in common with the rest of the Up line, but the formfactor — a simple clip — delivers those features in manner than can be easily hidden from sight.

This prompts an interesting question: Just how important is it that our wearables actually be seen? The answer is relatively clear in the case of a product like Google Glass: Visibility is an important part of part of addressing privacy concerns. Google has long posited that making the wearable itself highly visible makes people aware they could be recorded. Of course, when it comes to technophobia, that level of candidness can sometimes backfire

And then there’s a product like the Apple Watch. Once again, the answer is pretty clear: If you’re dropping that much on a shiny new Apple product, you bet can bet your black turtleneck that you’re going to be showing that thing off whenever possible. And that’s really Cupertino’s MO with the product — it’s every bit as much a fashion accessory as piece of functional technology, a fact that the company has made no bones about.

Jawbone UP3
Jawbone UP 3

But what of the lowly fitness tracker? Those minimalist pieces of curved plastic with no display or other flashy features to demand your regular attention? In a sense, they’re really just sensors placed on our body for the purpose of delivering unfiltered information to our fancy smartphones. But since the beginning, they’ve always been more than that. I can’t remember the last time I took one out without someone saying something at least.

They’re a comment to on-lookers about your devotion to staying fit — or at least your attempts at it. A shorthand for the sort of things that used to be accomplished by carrying your gym bag into the office.

Fitness bands are every bit as much a statement as a Livestrong bracelet, Google Glass or an Apple Watch.

The conversations it will spur will happen on a sliding scale, based on the other person’s familiarity with the product, from simple questions about what the heck that thing is on your wrist, to invitations to join them in that particular band’s social network. Because really, is there any quicker way to make a friend for life than by competing to find out who can walk the most steps on a given day?

Granted, as such devices grow more ubiquitous in our society, the initial novelty wears off pretty quickly — and do the questions from baffled on-lookers. But visibility continues to be a factor, both in reflecting our own interests in health and self-improvement to the outside world, and in reminding ourselves of the commitments that we’ve made to ourselves. Wearing a fitness band is the technology equivalent of tying a string around a finger to remind you of that on-going New Year’s resolution.

And while Jawbone is experimenting with the less visible Up Move, the fact that the wristband has remained the most ubiquitous form factor likely indicates that this will continue for a while. The sensors and transmitters contained inside a product like a FitBit are incredibly compact and have been for a while. Pocket and shoe-based pedometers have been around forever, but it took a full rethink of the form factor and a newfound visibility to help bring the technology into vogue.

Jawbone Up Move
Jawbone Up Move

Once you lose that visibility, what are you left with? As I touched on in a recent column, the fitness band becomes a commodity, transforming from a wearable gadget to a simple sensor, at which point one begins to wonder why we’re not just cutting out the middle man and relying solely on the rapidly sophisticating sensors being built directly into our smartphones.

In most projections of wearable computing, mockups largely revolve around garments with invisible sensors built-in. Those hypothetical products are shirts, shoes and other pieces of clothing with tiny embedded sensors constantly and invisibly collecting data in the background. And while there will surely be plenty of such products in the years to come, I can’t see visibility dropping out altogether. As long as we’re interesting in procuring the latest and greatest piece of technology, we’re going to be equally interested in showing it off.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.

Product Review

Google’s Pixel 3 is a hair away from pocket-sized perfection

Google’s Pixel 3 smartphone is the best Android phone you can buy. It doesn’t have the best looks or the best hardware, but you’ll be hard pressed to find better software and unique A.I. functionalities.
Wearables

Everything you need to know about Garmin’s GPS watches and trackers

Garmin jumped into the GPS smartwatch and fitness tracker market five years ago and has built a portfolio of devices that rivals competitor Fitbit. Here's your guide to the latest and greatest fitness devices that Garmin has to offer.
Deals

Make some time for the best smartwatch deals for November 2018

Smartwatches make your life easier by sending alerts right on your wrist. Many also provide fitness-tracking features. So if you're ready to take the plunge into wearables and want to save money, read on for the best smartwatch deals.
Deals

This smart toothbrush will clean all your teeth in just 6 seconds

No more one-size-fits-all toothbrushes with bristles too soft for deep cleaning or too hard on your gums. The Unobrush ergonomic toothbrush is designed to fit every type of mouth - you just bite down and it forms to every tooth.
Wearables

Wearable in Google patent will shake, bake, and shine to signal notifications

A new Google patent suggests that Google may be working on getting into the wearable game after all. The patent describes a wearable device that can vibrate, light up, and pulse when notifications arrive.
Mobile

Here's a look at what's inside Fossil's Pop-up Shop in New York

Fossil has released its first-ever smartwatch featuring Qualcomm's Snapdragon Wear 3100. The Fossil Sport comes packed with a heart rate monitor, built-in GPS, NFC, and Google's latest version of Wear OS. Here's everything you need to know.
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: 1-handed drone control, a pot that stirs itself

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!
Wearables

Hublot’s newest luxury watch costs $25,000, and you can only pay in Bitcoin

The Hublot Big Bang Meca-10 P2P is the latest luxury timepiece from the watch brand, and is a special limited edition made to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Bitcoin. Eager buyers must use the cryptocurrency to buy one.
Deals

Cyber Monday 2018: When it takes place and where to find the best deals

Cyber Monday is still a ways off, but it's never too early to start planning ahead. With so many different deals to choose from during one of the biggest shopping holidays of the year, going in with a little know-how makes all the…
Deals

The best Apple Watch deals for November 2018

The Apple Watch has surged to prominence in recent years. If you're in the market for an iOS wearable, we've sniffed out the best Apple Watch deals available right now for all three models of this great smartwatch.
Mobile

The world’s first smartglasses showrooms open in Brooklyn and Toronto

Canadian startup North is hoping smartglasses will be the next big wearable. After announcing its new Focals smartglasses in October, the company opened product showrooms in Brooklyn and Toronto.
Deals

Here are the best Apple Watch and Fitbit Versa deals for Black Friday

Apple products are the most sought-after products for Black Friday, the leaked preview ads show what discounts retailers will have for the Apple Watch Series 3 and other smartwatches, such as the Fitbit Versa, this holiday season.
Music

Music to our ears: Spotify at long last arrives on the Apple Watch

Spotify subscribers are now able to jam out to their favorite tunes on their favorite workout accessory, as the Swedish streaming service has finally released its official Apple Watch app.
Wearables

Check out 25 of the best Wear OS apps for your smartwatch

Looking for some ways to spruce up that new Android smartwatch of yours? Here are the best Wear OS apps to download and use with any Android smartwatch, including a few specially enhanced for Wear OS 2.0.