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

Wear Next 111014
Image used with permission by copyright holder
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 Image used with permission by copyright holder

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 Image used with permission by copyright holder

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.

Brian Heater
Brian Heater has worked at number of tech pubs, including Engadget, PCMag and Laptop. His writing has appeared in Spin…
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