Wearable Devices and Sports
I happen to be on holiday this week on the Sunshine Coast (in BC, not Aus). I’ve doing a lot of running and cycling so I thought I would blog a bit on how new devices like GPS watches, step counters and Phone Apps are helping track sports. I have a Garmin GPS watch and an iPhone 4s. So what can I do with these and what is the potential as these devices improve?
This year Sage is again participating in the GCC (the Get the World Moving Coporate Challenge). Basically you form teams of 7 co-workers and each of you wears a pedometer for the duration of the event. You then enter your steps, meters swam and km cycled into the website each day.
You then are tracked as you walk around the world and compete with other teams, either generally, within your company or within your area. The website is quite good, provides lots of useful information and tips on how to improve your health and fitness levels.
To do this tracking just requires a pedometer and their website. No other high tech gadgetry required. It will be interesting to see if more low tech solutions like this one (though the web site and pedometer are both fairly sophisticated) or solutions requiring more hardware like smart watches and extra devices will become the norm.
Garmin GPS Watches
There has been a lot of talk about Apple, Google and Microsoft coming out with smart watches this fall. Further several manufacturers like Samsung already have devices on the market. Then there have been a number of failures like Nike’s entry in this field. I think a lot of these companies have been looking at the success Garmin has had here. Garmin has transformed itself from manufacturing standalone GPS’s (which have now largely been replaced by functionality built into every phone) to making quite useful GPS sports watches.
The watches tend to be a bit bigger than a normal watch but still not uncomfortable to wear when running. Perhaps not the greatest fashion accessory, they are really quite useful. Besides recording your speed, location, distance and elevation in great detail, they also have heart rate monitors to give you quite a bit of information. Then they have a web site that is no extra charge to store and share all your routes and runs. For instance here.
The info is collected by the watch and then you upload it to your PC when you get back and then from there to their web site.
Generally this then gives you all sorts of metrics where you can see how you did, your pace every kilometer, how you did on uphill’s and downhill’s, etc. You can then track your progress and have a good idea of how you are doing.
There are quite a few fitness tracking apps for the iPhone. I just chose Runtastic because I liked the dashboard display in their app store ad. But otherwise it’s been fine, except for a bit too much promotion for the pro version. There are ads in the app and web site, but at a reasonable level, I think for the service you are getting.
There are a lot of attachments available to mount your phone on your bike; however, I’ve found that doing this really drains your phone’s battery quickly (i.e. in about an hour) and so isn’t really all that practical.
More typically it’s better to leave the display off since then it doesn’t seem to use that much battery. Also if you stop to take pictures or something, make sure you switch back to the app first. The iPhone doesn’t have good multi-tasking, so unless the app is the active one, it probably won’t be doing anything.
Once you are finished your ride, the app uploads the data to the website and allows you to share what you are doing via social media (as any of my Facebook friends know). For instance this one here.
Like the Garmin website, this one gives you lots of information and makes it easy to track your progress as you try to improve your sport.
I think that companies like Apple are looking at this market and hope it is a bit like the early MP3 music player market was. Then a company like Apple could come along, redefine the market, make it dead simple and create a much larger market than what the early technology startups could achieve.
Whether Apple can repeat the iPod success in this market is yet to be seen. And they are certainly going to face a lot of competition as Microsoft and Google are hoping they can do the same thing.
Garmin type devices have better battery life and better durability than phones. However phones have better apps and greatly benefit from continuous Internet connectivity. So what are successful future devices going to need? From my perspective they will need:
- Better battery life. Operating with only a couple of hour’s batter life is insufficient. This should really be a week.
- Better durability. They can’t just fry when they get a little wet in the rain. Cycling and running are outdoor sports performed in any weather. Athletes don’t want extra clothing or gear to keep their watch dry. Further it would be great if these work for swimming. After all there are already a great many regularly triathlon watches that work great while swimming.
- Intelligent support for more sports. Useful metrics gathered while golfing for instance. What about soccer, football or hockey?
- Do not require a separate data plan. If you have to pay $50 per month to a cell phone provider then they are dead in the water.
Another area where there is great research going on is developing more sensors that measure things like blood glucose levels, blood pressure, etc. It will be interesting to see how tracking these additional metrics can help athletes.
There are also appearing apps that intelligently use the Phone’s camera to do things like analyze golf swings and tennis strokes. As these improve we may reach the stage where casual players can get real professional coaching and feedback right from their phone.
On the flip side, there is a lot of concern about the possible privacy implications of these devices. For instance if I record heart rate monitor information and it starts detecting abnormal behavior, could an insurance company find out and cancel my insurance? Could it be used in other adverse ways? Generally this sort of medical information is very protected. Will these devices, services and web sites offer the necessary levels of personal privacy protection? Will I find out I have a heart condition because suddenly I start receiving ads for defibulators and pace-makers? There is certainly a lot of concern about this out there and there have been many Science Fiction stories about the possible abuses. Hopefully these won’t all turn out to be prophetic.
By Christmas shopping season we are going to be inundated by new intelligent watches and other form factors that can help us track and improve our fitness levels. They will track all sorts of metrics for us, provide feedback and even professional levels of coaching. It will be interesting to see if this sparks a greater level of interest in fitness and sports. Maybe these will even help with the current epidemic obesity levels in our society.