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Wearing away the wearable possibilities As fitness tracker market evolves, experts look to next generation of devices to move beyond step counts By Ryan Johnson Forum News Service FARGO – We’re living in an era of “Jetsons”-like technological possibilit

By Ryan Johnson

Forum News Service

FARGO – We’re living in an era of “Jetsons”-like technological possibilities.

But Adrian Dawson-Becker, a mobile strategist for Fargo-based Myriad Mobile, said those rapidly evolving capabilities, including video communications, portable electronic devices and home appliance automation, haven’t translated into the “perfect” wearable device – at least not yet.

Consumers know they want these devices to connect with their phones and offer a unique experience beyond what they’d get from a wristwatch.

“But they don’t really have a vision for what they want that to be,” he said.

That uncertainty, according to Dawson-Becker, is behind the meteoric rise in the popularity of wearable fitness trackers, including the Fitbit, Nike FuelBand and Jawbone UP – three brands that accounted for 97 percent of all smartphone-enabled activity trackers sold last year.

“Fitness wearables took off because they met a specific need,” he said.

These smartphone-enabled fitness wearables, which sync with a user’s smartphone and provide data far beyond the step counts tallied by pedometers, totaled sales of $330 million in 2013, according to a study by the NPD Group, a market research company with headquarters in Port Washington, N.Y.

Juniper Research said 13 million wearable devices were sold in 2013. By 2018, that number is expected to balloon to 130 million, equaling $19 billion in sales.

But the capabilities are still limited on many of the most popular fitness tracker models today, and as new features and technology are developed, Dawson-Becker said consumers can expect to see a sea change in the possibilities that will be available from a wristband or pair of glasses.

The new exercise gear

Scheels All Sports in Fargo sells two wearable fitness devices, the Polar Loop and Garmin Vivofit, and will soon carry the iFit , which will be compatible with the newest line of treadmills.

At this point, many entry-level models are a “really advanced pedometer,” according to Evonne Saleh, the Scheels exercise shop manager. The devices keep track of movement, tallying steps taken to come up with a baseline of activity.

But their utility at this point comes down to encouraging people to be more active or just realize how inactive they are, she said.

“With the Vivofit , there’s actually a little red line that goes across the top of it,” she said. “If you’re inactive for an hour or more, the line is fully across the top, telling you to get up and move. I don’t think people realize how much they’re sedentary versus walking around and being active.”

Most consumers interested in these devices want to lose weight and become more active, Saleh said. Others like the ability to track sleep patterns. For an additional price, some models also are compatible with heart rate straps that can make the device’s estimate of calories burned more accurate and help customize workout routines to get the best results.

Other wearables function as a GPS-enabled watch, tracking actual distance to come up with a breakdown of the user’s pace and offer a way of virtually competing to achieve fitness goals.

Still, today’s technology is mostly useful for people looking to become more active or lose weight, not serious athletes, Saleh said.

“I think it’s definitely more geared towards your average Joe,” she said. “If you’re already a big fitness advocate, you’re probably already aware of what you’re doing.”

Beyond Running in Fargo carries a wide selection of gear made for runners and walkers – high-quality running shoes, workout clothes and, increasingly, wearable gadgets.

Manager Maddie Van Beek said some customers want an easy-to-use watch, something that “doesn’t have all those extra bells and whistles,” and many will go with a basic GPS watch that sells for $100 to $200. Others want to track their heart rate and splurge for more expensive wearables that sell for $450 or more.

“There’s a watch for everybody out there,” she said.

Future potential

Sales of wearable fitness devices have stayed steady in the three years she’s worked at Beyond Running, though Van Beek said the difference is there’s more competition in the market now.

“We have more options than we used to, so there’s always people popping in that are interested in the new thing or want to upgrade their old watch,” she said.

Retailers sold 3.3 million fitness bands and activity trackers from April 2013 to March 2014, according to the NPD Group, and the number of units sold annually grew 500 percent for the period.

Still, an analysis by research service BI Intelligence found the rate of growth is “deceiving” because the market started so low. To put it into perspective, the service said America’s fifth-most popular smartphone maker, Motorola, sold 4.8 million handsets in 2013 – 45 percent more units than the entire fitness tracker market.

BI Intelligence said there are signs fitness device makers are losing interest in the sector, pointing to Nike’s partial layoff of its FuelBand employee team as it switched its focus from hardware to software.

Dawson-Becker said the latest research suggests consumers have been quick to adopt wearable fitness technology – and just as quick to grow bored with the devices. The average amount of time that users actually use these products is 90 to 120 days.

That short lifespan might start to improve as the next generation of wearables hits the market, said Sam Stutsman, a lead Android engineer for Myriad Mobile who wears an LG G Watch that offers fitness tracking while also displaying notifications and syncing with his phone.

One in 10 people has a wearable device already, according to Mike Mulvaney, mobile strategist for Myriad Mobile, but only half continue to use their devices after three months.

The three big mobile systems, operated by Google, Apple and Microsoft, all are building up capabilities of proprietary health platforms that Dawson-Becker said will provide cutting edge data analysis that moves far beyond step counts and heart rate charts.

“The end goal is to sync your actual medical data with your fitness apps and wearables, so combining them all together so you get a unique view of your overall health,” he said, adding that information eventually could be uploaded into medical charts, giving doctors and patients alike a better overview of a person’s health.

Apple is expected in October to announce a new wearable watch, which could be the start of the next generation, Stutsman said. Other wearables, including Google Glass, could spur the sector to make technological jumps and finally reach the masses.

But he said fitness trackers have already introduced the public to the possibilities, and as more people get used to the idea of wearing a gadget to track deeply personal information and work in tandem with their phones, tablets and computers, the possibilities are endless.

“It’s going to be less and less strange, and once it doesn’t feel so weird, and once it’s more normal and it’s been in the news enough times, then we’ll see more people adopting wearables,” Stutsman said.