Footballers, friends and zombies: Fitness tech gets social

Lionel Messi
Image caption The Adidas MiCoach boots are worn by Barcelona and Argentina star Lionel Messi

For people struggling to get fit, their main problem is simply a matter of motivation. They don't have any.

As any well-intentioned but failed runner will testify, waking up at 6am, in a warm bed, and peering through the window to see a wet and windy world is not particularly inviting - particularly when facing the challenge means an hour of inevitable physical and mental pain.

But while a large number of us would fall (asleep) at this hurdle, a raft of innovative gadgetry is kicking new life into the casual fitness enthusiast - motivating more people to run by harnessing the power of data, target-setting and social networking.

"It helps people get fit one step at a time, and to conquer real, very difficult impediments to getting fit," explains Gareth Jones, vice president and European general manager for Fitbit, a company which creates what is known as "wellness" devices.

"We recently did a story showing that up to 70% of the UK finds it very difficult to fit exercise into their daily lives.

"Even if they can manage to get some in, there's an extreme amount of difficulty staying motivated."

Their newest product, the Fitbit Ultra, contains similar technology to that found within, for example, a Nintendo Wii controller - a 3-D accelerometer which can intricately detect movement of the device.

This means it is able to cleverly work out if a user is walking, running, going up or down stairs and so on. This data is transmitted, wirelessly, to a computer so the collected data can be analysed, giving the user a comprehensive report on the state of their health.

Then, Mr Jones argues, the real get-out-of-bed motivational factor comes into play.

Users can upload their data to a personalised webpage which can be shared with friends and relatives as a way of showing off achievement or, as has been found to be very popular, a chance to egg each other on in groups.

"Instead of being on your own, or having someone come round and knocking on your door and dragging you out of bed, you get it online now," Mr Jones enthuses.

"Your friends, your comrades, can actually then engage in a social activity. You can share what you're doing."

For specific goals, rewards can be earned - such as the Big Ben badge, gained when a user walks up enough stairs over a period of time to have reached the top of Big Ben.

Bump in the night

Fitbit have not made its financial records public, but Mr Jones said sales are up by six to seven times on this time last year.

Image caption The Fitbit Ultra collects large amounts of data about a person's exercise

But, like its users, Fitbit faces an endurance test of its own as it tries to cement its place in what is quickly becoming a crowded market.

Among those jostling for space is "UP" from US company Jawbone.

The rubbery wristband, which communicates directly with an iPhone, has become the talk of Silicon Valley for both good reasons and bad.

The product has sold out across the world - attracting $40m in investment in the process - but has been fraught with seriously reliability problems as many users reported malfunctions which left the device dead.

However, a working UP also collects data about the user's "wellness", including sleep patterns, which can be automatically posted online - leaving many users to jokingly point out when friends' records show a suspicious period of intense physical exertion while in bed.

That particular feature can be deactivated.

Image caption The UP from Jawbone has suffered some early reliability problems, but is still proving popular

Fit's about to get Messi

Meanwhile, more established sports brands have been experimenting in the area for some time.

In fact, it's a technology race that began as early as 1987 - when Nike developed the Nike Monitor, a device that strapped around a runner's midriff, detecting a runner's speed.

It never took off, mainly down to its unwieldy size meaning the runner was likely to have struggled to run at full speed, rendering the product somewhat useless.

Now, Nike offers its Nike+ series - a range of products geared primarily towards runners which gives the option for users to upload swathes of data for either their own training purposes or to share with others.

Adidas, meanwhile, has its product, the MiCoach, endorsed by some of the world's greatest footballers including Lionel Messi.

The MiCoach device, which is designed to fit snugly into a specially designed football boot, captures how often a player sprints, how far he runs and what top speed he reaches. Naturally, this is uploaded onto the web - but, in an intriguing twist, also powers an accompanying iPhone game in which a virtual character's ability improves depending on how hard the real footballer trains.

Image caption 'Zombies, Run!' encourages gamers to go running outside to complete in-game missions

Zombie apocalypse

This game-based incentive to train, work hard and keep fit is also behind "Zombies, Run!", a mobile game developed by London-based "story teller" developers Six to Start.

The game, which has been developed thanks to money raised through crowd-funding site Kickstarter, plants the player in the midst of a disaster. The only way to save yourself is to run for real.

"Players put their headphones in, and as they're running they experience an immersive story where they're running through a post apocalyptic world," explains Adrian Hon, Six-to-Start's chief executive.

"They are collecting supplies and going on missions for their home base. The more you run, the more story you get - and when you get back home in the real world you can assign those things you 'collected' to your base and level up."

Mr Hon says the purpose of the game is to perhaps reach out to the kind of people who find running boring - and rather than offer statistics and fitness-based goals, instead offer a compelling story - one that has been written by Orange-prize winning author Naomi Alderman.

"It's fun pretending that it really matters that you run another ten minutes to get a fuel can," Mr Hon adds.

Holy grail

"Zombies, Run!" is scheduled to launch early in 2012. If it's successful, the game could represent something of a holy grail in entertainment - a product that appeals to the typically non-active gamer while also encouraging a new dedication and loyalty to keeping fit.

Guyanee Dewnarain, a research director from Gartner, believes health and fitness technology may be headed for a popularity boom - but there is plenty of important work to do before the apps challenge traditional games and productivity software.

"It's more for health enthusiasts as such [at the moment], but I think eventually it will pick up.

"There are two main elements. One element is accuracy [of the app], and the second element is the social media aspect, integrated with entertainment, music systems - all the different parts which help it become more attractive to you."

She adds that the first service to truly "open up" their system may be able to edge ahead.

"If you open it up to a broader community, then you're likely to have more people involved because they don't feel as tied into it.

"What we've seen with Nike+ was that when they started it needed special shoes to use with the app - so you had to have the shoes to be able to use the app. What they did eventually was allow you to choose any shoes."

Ms Dewnarain suggests that developers should also be looking beyond providing entertainment or social-based incentives, and instead look to what could be far more lucrative, impactful partnerships.

"They have to talk to health insurance companies," she insists.

"If the health insurance companies start subsidising these devices, as it's in their interest that people keep healthy, this is going to be a massive industry.

"It's just about getting all the parties together. I'm surprised that hasn't happened yet."

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