If there was any doubt that fitness measurement, whether using wearable devices or sensor-equipped smartphones, is going mainstream it should have been settled Nov. 14 by UnderArmour’s purchase of startup Map My Fitness for $150 million.
Of course, devices such as the Fitbit or Nike FuelBand and associated fitness apps for iPhone and Android have been around for a while. But each of these existed in its own cozy ecosystem, with the devices mostly talking to dedicated apps. Device-agnostic approaches as Map My Fitness, whose combination of fitness tracking and social networking communities includes Map My Run, Map My Ride, and Map My Walk, are integrating the sensor of your choice into a broader system of fitness and lifestyle tools. They are your personal Internet of Things.
We are just at the beginning of this trend, which is being driven both by culture and technology. Some key technology developments and making fitness sensors cheaper, more ubiquitous, and more versatile. The M7 chip in the iPhone 5s (also, the new iPads, though their larger size makes them less practical as fitness devices) can continually record motion data from the accelerometer, gyroscope, and compass while consuming only a minuscule amount of power. The Motorola Moto X has similar sensor-based capabilities. Dedicated fitness sensor devices are also getting better, with the $150 Jawbone UP24 the latest to hit the market.
Even relatively diminutive smartphones are too big for a lot of fitness uses. Do you really want a phone in your pocket while you work out on an elliptical trainer? But the tiny size and low power consumption of these new sensors enables the design of very small wearable devices capable of continuous monitoring and logging. Another technology, Bluetooth LE (for low energy) lets wearables upload data to smartphones, tablets, or PCs as soon as they come into range.
Built-in GPS is still impractical for small wearables because of the size of radios and antennas, the need to be positioned with a clear view of the sky, and, most important, the significant power demand. But a wearable device could download an initial position from a phone’s GPS, then use inertial navigation information from the gyroscope, accelerometer, and compass to track its course.
App developers have only begun to scratch he surface of the opportunities provided by a new generation of sensors. Apple has enhanced the iOS programming interfaces to let developers take advantage of M7 data, but relatively few apps take advantage of it just yet. Developing more advanced software will be the key to making sensor-based technology a part of everyday life. “There’s lots of sensor data,” said Kevin Callahan, vice president for innovation strategies and co-founder of Map My Fitness (in an interview before the UnderArmour acquisition was announced.) “The question is how to give it back to the user in a compelling way.”
With the increasing miniaturization of sensors and radios, the dedicated device may eventually disappear altogether as inexpensive sensors are built into our bicycles, runnings shoes, and jackets. Says Callahan, “Two years from now I expect everything to be embedded.”