Wearable fitness tracking technology is the future!

Such excitement was so early-2014. We saw articles in The Wall Street Journal that described how corporate CEOs were big users of wearables and how they were competing against each other to see who could sleep better or walk more. BusinessWeek ran a story earlier this year that discussed the possibility — the likelihood? — of wearables putting gyms out of business. The New York Times ran a piece two weeks ago today about how wearables were being used in gyms.

Then, Nike announced that it is discontinuing its Fuelband product. Now the headlines are:

Nike FuelBand Was the First Fitness Tracker to Fall, But It Won’t Be the Last
Is Nike 'pulling Fuelband' the end of wearable tech?
Nike Failed. Now Only Apple Can Save Wearables

We wish everyone would be so excited and emotional about what these devices are used for — you know, the fitness thing — rather than the devices themselves. To be clear, we think these devices are cool and interesting, and we are looking at various options for how we might include them in the personal training side of our business. But may we please say something about the Nike product that nobody seems to want to say?

The Nike product was a gimmick that forced exercisers into a proprietary Nike world. It didn’t provide fitness metrics that people could understand — steps taken, calories burned, etc. It gave you “points” based on your physical activity. If you asked Nike what those “points” represented, they wouldn’t tell you.

Since we are investigating wearables for use in our facility, we took a look at the Nike product. We dismissed it in about two and half seconds.

We could see the appeal of “points” to non-fitness people, especially since Fuelband allows people to compete against each other: “How many points did you get today?” But such a simplistic system was never going to have long-term appeal to fitness enthusiasts and Type A personalities who want data, data and more data. And let’s face it. Non-fitness people are not the target market for such devices.

Nike just had it wrong.

So, please, let’s not make the Fuelband a test case for the long-term viability of wearable technology. This is a young market with way too many players, and there are huge risks to every company that is making such devices. Here are just some of the risks:

  • At some point, these devices are not going to be status symbols that they currently are.
  • People are also going to tire of them because they aren’t going to care what the devices say. For example, we all know we need more sleep, and whether it’s our mothers or a wearable device telling us, it won't make us sleep more.
  • The technology is going to become “wearable” in all sorts of different ways, so any given design may lose its appeal.
  • People will decide that they like choosing when they want to monitor themselves and when they don’t. Being “on” 24 hours a day is a lot of responsibility for most people.
  • Much of this sort of functionality will end up being built into your smart phone.
  • And, as The New York Times pointed out Monday, there is much debate as to whether or not these devices even work. The sleep monitoring has always been considered dubious, and even the ability to monitor simple metrics such as steps taken can be suspect.

All sorts of things are going to happen in this market, and the current mania will die down. We’ll see if these devices have legs and become a staple of almost everyone’s lives like phones and e-readers. Or maybe they die out. Or maybe they’ll remain somewhere in between. Who knows?

Nike had a proprietary, gimmicky product. Let’s not read too much into its failure.

Rob Bishop (rob@elevationshealthclub.com) and Barry Klein are owners of Elevations Health Club in Scotrun, Pa.