This is what CES 2017 taught me about the future of the fitness business

I’m embarrassed to say that this was my first year venturing out to Vegas to attend CES. The conference hardly needs an intro, but each year 150,000+ from the tech community fly to Las Vegas to show off some of the latest and greatest technologies we should expect to see over the coming year.

My purpose for the trip was to learn what direction consumer brands, like Fitbit, Garmin, and InBody, saw as having the most opportunity, in order to understand how those innovations may influence fitness and wellness businesses.

For those needing the abridged version of my findings…. we are all going to have Pixar-like robots in our home, drones will eventually block out the sun, and Withings found a way to take health tracking to the new level with the introduction of their smart brush… yes, you read that correctly.

For those more interested in understanding where mobile health companies intend to take the consumer tracking experience for the sake of understanding how it may influence YOUR business, I’ll try my best to provide you with a concise overview of my observations and general reactions.

A Focus on Tracking for the Lowest Common Denominator

I had the opportunity to attend a closed panel one morning focused on the topic of how health and wellness businesses were incorporating data from apps and wearables in to their patient/client/employee engagement strategies. Some of the current limitations have been obvious, so the goal was to vocalize the key issues that needed to be solved, offer solutions, then map out how changes would influence healthcare delivery.

The panel and moderator were all in agreement that there would be a significant push over the next 18 months for mobile health to integrate within traditional care and payer models, which as a result meant that there would be a rise in adoption by less fitness-focused consumers.

Keep in mind that these new mobile health users are the ones who will require extrinsic motivators to adopt devices, allow for providers and payers to access their information, and to maintain a basic level of engagement.

(i.e. The “What will I get out of this?” folks).

With that in mind, it becomes even more critical that device manufacturers ensure their entry level devices are built around simplicity, maybe even withholding some of the popular functionality demanded by the fitness-focused consumer.

There is a clear trade-off between functionality, such as continuous heart rate, and a device’s battery life, and there appears to be mounting pressure from those within wellness and healthcare for manufacturers to introduce more efficient devices resulting in more prolonged usage for basic users.

Less Obtrusive Data Collection

Smart Clothing

We’ve all seen the Under Armour commercial with “future girl”, the casual runner able to adjust her track suit’s design through an interface on the sleeve. For most, this came across as being a page out of science fiction, but for the innovators in technology, this stood as a challenge to what may eventually be possible for casual athletes.

Wandering through the exhibitor’s hall I encountered a handful of companies presenting smart clothing, but I quickly took notice of the possible variations that were possible depending on the type of athlete and what portion of their gear best served to be the data collection hub.

For instance, one of the primary announcements that will affect most fitness and wellness professionals over the coming year was Under Armour’s launch of its connected shoe line. The best part? No need to have your phone with you while you run, as the shoe’s technology is able to interface directly to the MapMyFitness app.

Why does this matter? Under Armour has quickly become the 3rd largest apparel manufacturer on the planet, and with that means that they will continue to provide consumers with active gear to fuel healthy lifestyles. While we may be several years from the promise of “future girl’s” smart, customizable track suit, a connected shoe is a logical way in which to ease consumers into smart clothing without requiring much change in user behavior.

With that said, it’s also worth noting that there were several other types of smart clothing concepts present that were either built around an isolated sensor on a specific article of clothing, or like Sensoria, leveraged a more modular design enabling their technology to power other articles of clothing.

Regardless of whether the smartest device on your body will be a shirt, a shoe, or other, I’d expect to see smart clothing being worn by early fitness adopters in 2017, and become more mainstream in 2018.

Hearables

Don’t feel bad if you aren’t familiar with the term, as this concept is still relatively new to the health tracking space. I’d heard rumblings over the past year of the potential for earbuds to be the next frontier of health tracking device but it wasn’t until CES that I became more aware to the potential.

Earbuds make strategic data collection vessels for a couple basic reasons. Take a walk in any densely-populated area and you can’t help but notice that it’s now socially acceptable to walk around all day with earphone in your ears.

It’s a strange concept, but as the needs of our connected society have evolved over the past 5 years, manufacturers have been able to miniaturize earphones and enhance comfort levels to a point where earbuds are hardly noticeable.

Add that to the fact that the inner ear can be seen as a hub for biometric data and you can see why this may be worth exploring. Wrist-worn heart rate trackers have made headlines over the past few years due to questions around efficacy, so manufacturers have realized that optical sensors on the wrist provide less-reliable data during exercise. However, these limitations are highly mitigated through the use of a more stationary collection point.

With that in mind I was amazed to see the number of companies delivering some type of solution for this market.  While there already appears to be a handful of players in the space, I can‘t help but think that this functionality will eventually be supported with Apple’s new AirPods.

After seeing them up close it’s obvious that brands envision the day when consumers will constantly have that technology on their person making it even more logical to include biometric tracking as well.

Home Programming

What’s your client management strategy for digital interactions? If you don’t have one then now is the time to consider exploring.

With the current state of wifi speeds and connectivity, companies now have the opportunity to deliver truly remarkable value to consumers in the form of in-home workouts and coaching. No company better illustrates this fact than Peloton whose system is comprised of a premium, stationary bicycle fully equipped with a monitor allowing you to join studio workouts and compete with other riders all from your home.

While multiple businesses could be found throughout CES delivering in-home workouts and training, Peloton is an extremely well-funded behemoth with over $100m in funds raised since their inception.

All things considered, it’s encouraging to see so much consumer and investor interest for these concepts assuring me that these groups have staying power and are blazing a trail in the market.

Why this matters to you

ALL of these developments should be attractive to any fitness or wellness business looking to continue providing incredible services to their clients.

Wrist-worn devices have had a checkered past due to issues with engagement and battery life, so expect 2017 to be a year of transition as manufacturers continue exploring ways in which they can increase adoption of mobile health by introducing easier ways for consumers to collect and engage with their data.

Smart clothing and hearables deliver the promise of more consistent, true activity data, all the while removing the necessity of tireless manual tracking. As long as the data is not locked within the clothing or device itself, it should be accessible and usable within client management strategies using systems like Nudge Coach.

While Under Armour appears to be leading the charge in the convergence of smart clothing, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see other apparel AND traditional technology companies follow suit, leading to a new wave of connected clothing.

The opportunity is further enhanced with the potential surrounding hearables whereby better data can be regularly captured on clients throughout the day through more-functional, Airpod-like devices. This then sets the stage for more real-time analysis by a professional over-seeing the data, and tightening of the feedback loop through in-ear “coaching” and encouragement.

At the end of the day consumers will demand the most specialized tracking experience for their lifestyle, so regardless of how the information is collected, more readily available information further empowers professionals to create more accurate fitness or wellness strategies for clients.

Keep in mind that while the data is valuable, content and its delivery is the basis for engagement, and a critical stepping stone towards driving long term outcomes. Professionals are employed to help consumers reach their goals by providing that “substance” in a way that best motivates their clients, which as a result will lead to better metrics.

Looking at a system like Peloton, they can collect such great data on their cycling community because data is secondary to the content that is being provided in two key forms:

  1. Professionally created content through the monitor, the professional can educate, encourage, and provide feedback to participants based on their performance.
  2. User generated content so participants can socialize on the platform, adding an additional layer of value and stickiness.

 

Recent innovations in health tracking should NOT be seen as a threat to fitness and wellness businesses, but should be viewed as a real opportunity to better predict client needs and to deliver enhanced value seamlessly, either on the go or while at-home.

Data can be used to accurately predict who needs a timely touchpoint, clients likely to churn, or illustrate valuable ROI for programming, and the ability to deliver value has expanded to help power more digital models.

Based on my trip to CES I’m confident that over the next year we will see a significant increase in partial and fully digital models that allow professionals to more easily engage clients with offerings that marry traditional services with new content delivery and a client’s favorite health tracking app.