Technology


Wristbands that help keep tabs on your fitness


They make you constantly aware of how active you are. They let you compare your data with friends online, establishing a friendly rivalry or at least guilt. And they therefore motivate you to make changes that add up: park farther away, take the stairs, get off one bus stop earlyPic: Agencies

Maybe you've heard: Americans are becoming less fit and more fat. There are all kinds of theories about why — bigger meal portions, omnipresent corn syrup and sugar, fewer pickup stickball games after school. But people are starting to think that in many cases, body weight might somehow be linked to diet and exercise.

Now, studies have shown that if there's sore visible, omnipresent monitor of your negative behaviour — spending too much money, eating too much food, using too much power in your home — you're far more likely to correct it.

That's the idea behind personal activity-tracking bracelets like the Nike FuelBand ($150) and the improved Jawbone Up band ($130). They make you constantly aware of how active you are (or aren't). They let you compare your data with friends online, establishing a friendly rivalry or at least guilt. And they therefore motivate you to make changes that add up: park farther away, take the stairs, get off one bus stop early.

There are plenty of other fitness trackers, including clip-onto-clothing trackers (like the FitBit and Striiv) and wristwatchlike gadgets (like Motorola's MotoActiv). But the beauty of the bracelets is that you can leave them on — asleep, in the shower, shirtless or even all three — and so you're more likely to stick with the program.
Now, those who follow the wearable, accelerometer-based fitness-tracking gadget industry are no doubt scratching their heads right about now.

The Up band? Wasn't that a bracelet that came out about a year ago, and crashed and burned in a humiliatingly public epidemic of hardware failures? Didn't Jawbone, a company known for Bluetooth speakers and earpieces, pull Up off the market, offering a generous mea culpa ("You can receive a full refund for UP. This is true even if you decide to keep your UP band")?Yes.

The company says that after months of testing and millions of dollars in research, it realised that the original band, billed as waterproof, actually wasn't quite. Water, sweat and shower soap managed to seep inside and short out the components.

The new Up band, the company swears, is bulletproof. Or at least really, truly waterproof. The company says it redesigned 17 parts and made 28 improvements in the manufacturing process.

The new band looks identical — it's still a stiff, rubber, overgrown C in a choice of colours, with ends that overshoot each other — but inside, it's far better shielded and enclosed. (It's also $30 more expensive.)
The corresponding iPhone app has had some work done, too.

The central conceit is a Facebook-style timeline of your life. Each "post" represents a day's worth of activity, or a night of sleep, or a meal. (You can enter nonstep-based workouts manually, like biking or weights.) Your friends' health developments can show up in your stream, too.

That doesn't mean that the app is ready for its close-up. It's fairly baffling, housing as it does duplicate hidden menus, and it has its share of bugs and quirks. Why, on a screen that's much taller than it is wide, are your progress graphs inch-tall bars swimming in empty space? And wow — if you did a sit-up every time you got the "Sorry, there was an error connecting with the UP server" message, you'd have abs of concrete. (An Android app is in the works.)

What's great, though, is that the Up's ambitions extend beyond simple activity tracking. If you do a double press on the button at the end of the band when you go to bed, for example, the bracelet does an impressive job of tracking your night of sleep: how long it takes you to drift off, how many times you wake up, how many hours you spend in light and deep sleep.

A related, extremely useful feature: when you need a power nap (a 25-minute quick sleep, whose refreshing qualities have been well documented in studies), the band doesn't start counting until it sees that you're actually asleep.

So you actually get 25 minutes, after which the band vibrates to rouse you.
That's something the average pedometer doesn't do.

You can track your food intake in any of three ways: by taking a photo of what you eat, by scanning the bar code on its package (the app instantly and correctly identifies it) or by choosing from a categorised list of common foodstuffs. It's still fairly manual — no wristband can tell what you're shoving into your mouth – so most people probably won't bother.

But if you do, the new Up band is supposed to do something useful with the information. It comes up with what Jawbone calls Insights — observations that it determines by correlating your sleep, activity, food and location information. "You tend to eat more when you're on the West Coast," it might say, or, "You don't sleep as well when you eat after 9pm," or, "You fall asleep faster on the days when you've worked out."

During my week wearing the Up band (and not logging many meals), the Insights never offered anything more incisive than, for example, "Studies show that exercise release feel-good chemicals in your brain." Jawbone says that the longer you use the band (and the more diligent you are about recording data), the smarter the Insights become.

Despite all of these improvements, Jawbone hasn't fixed the monolithic conceptual flaw of its first incarnation: to transfer your collected data from the band to the iPhone, you still have to take it off your wrist, pull the cap off its end (it's roughly the size of a carbon atom), insert the newly exposed pin into the iPhone's headphone jack, open the app so that it can sync, and then put everything back together again. If you haven't lost that cap after three weeks, consider a career in nanotechnology.

Jawbone insists that the screamingly obvious solution to this syncing problem — Bluetooth wireless capability — is too complicated and requires components that are too big for a wristband.

Yet somehow Nike has managed it with the FuelBand.This is a wider, bulkier bracelet, more like a watchband than one of those coloured charity bands. Its battery doesn't last as long (several days instead of 10 on the Up). And it's water-resistant (showers), not waterproof (swimming).

But the FuelBand has a built-in screen. With each press of the adjacent button, the word "Steps" or "Calories" or "Time" scrolls by on a matrix of very bright LED lights, followed by your current tally (or the current time). A fourth statistic, called NikeFuel, also appears, although Nike doesn't give any clear explanation of what it is, apart from saying it's produced by an algorithm based on "oxygen kinetics."

The screen makes a powerful difference. It means that you can see how you're doing without needing the phone. It also means that you can use the FuelBand (available in solid black or in black or white "ice" — translucent plastic that lets you see the internal components) as a cool-looking wristwatch.

But if you do want to transmit your data to the corresponding iPhone app, all you have to do is hold down the button. Now the screen says "Sync," and the graph of your day's efforts grows to full height on the phone's screen. The band never leaves your wrist.

The Nike band is polished and professional, it has that awesome screen and the wireless Bluetooth syncing is the way to go. This pony performs its trick brilliantly, but it's still just one trick.

The Up band is saddled by its goofy headphone-jack syncing method and rather weird software design. But the 10-day battery life, never-think-about-it waterproofness and sleep tracking make it far more likely to do its job: help you be healthier.

And if those Insights ever become more insightful, you might learn something about yourself that you never knew – and that could make you feel better from day to day. Not bad for a rubber band.

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