Moov fitness tracker actually tells us how to fix ourselves

A powerful, low-cost device that 3D maps whatever it's strapped to could seriously shake up fitness-oriented wearable tech.

The Moov fitness tracker, using a combination of three powerful sensors, tracks whatever it's strapped to and monitors movement accordingly, whether it's your ankle, wrist, bike pedal or -- the company hopes in the future -- golf clubs and other sporting and exercise equipment. Moov

The complaints with wearable fitness trackers are routinely uniform. If a device is slim and sleek, it tends not to provide very useful data beyond counting steps and telling you when you rolled around in your sleep. If it's powerful, on the other hand, it's typically bulky and designed at the expense of looking like something you'd actually want to wear in public.

The team behind Moov, originating from a partnership between a former Apple engineer and two veterans of sensor research at Microsoft, is trying to change that paradigm. They're offering a device that they say is not only as well-designed as competing gadgets, but also one that can tell us what we're doing wrong -- and how to fix it -- in real time by identifying and then 3D mapping the object it's attached to.

That makes Moov, with its companion mobile software that acts as a personalized fitness coach, possibly one of the first wearable trackers geared at both workout beginners and advanced health nuts that offers up actionable data and suggestive behavior changes, not just graphs and numbers we tend to ignore when they paint a lazy picture.

Moov launched Thursday with a crowdfunding campaign on its Web site aimed at raising $40,000 for an initial release this July. It has declined to disclose its source of funding thus far. The company is selling one of its trackers for $59 and two for $99 for the first 30 days, and hopes to retail the device for $120.

Fixing us, using data with a human element
Moov looks very much your standard wearable tracker -- imagine Misfit's Shine affixed to a Fitbit Flex strap. It's meant to be worn on your ankle or wrist, but can be modified for activities like cycling to read data from your bike pedal and later, the company hopes, be compatible with things like golf clubs and baseball bats.

Though it's not radical in appearance, the device differentiates itself in both the capacity of its light-weight hardware and the power of its software. Moov contains not just an accelerometer and gyroscope for detecting movement in space and the force of that motion, but also a magnetometer to pick up on rotation.

"It is akin to a Leap Motion because it uses a combination of those sensors to map an object in 3D space," said co-founder Meng Li, a Microsoft Research sensor expert who formed Moov last year with co-founders Nikola Hu and Tony Yuan. All three saw wearable tech as ripe, new territory to bring their sensor expertise to market.

Yuan is also a former Microsoft Research member who now specializes in Moov's hardware efforts. Hu is a former member of Microsoft's Halo team since Halo 2 in 2002 to the last of the Bungie-developed titles, Halo Reach, in 2011 where he worked on graphical applications. He moved on after that to be an iOS frameworks engineer at Apple.

All three met at Microsoft Research more than a decade ago where they developed sensor-based gaming technologies before Hu moved on to Halo. "People at that time told me that the first tablet-sensor game was made by us," Hu said. "At that time, sensors were very raw and expensive. Tony gave me the latest hardware from last year, and the latest sensors are totally different. Day and night different."

Moov

With Moov, those sensor advancements are used in conjunction with corresponding algorithms to match the activity type and then monitor your actions. Moov tells you in real time with a Siri-sounding voice when, for instance, the rate of your stride is too slow and the force of your foot hitting the ground too high, potentially causing stress on knees.

Through its companion iOS app -- Android will be available three months after launch, the company said -- Moov can be toggled to track any one of five different activities: cycling, swimming, running, weight training, and boxing. Running and cycling give you real-time feedback via audio, while weight training and boxing have video components with professional coaches -- all of whom wore Moov throughout their recording so that your movements can be matched to theirs -- that give personalized feedback that learns how to tailor itself as you progress.

Users can choose from a group of coaches for the video-enabled activities, and those activities are gamified with high scores and competitive social sharing elements. "It's like Guitar Hero," Li said, showcasing on an iPad screen the ways in which the pair of Moovs on Hu's wrists were attempting to match those of the on-screen boxing coach, signaling to Hu in a sidebar stream of mismatching colors when he was performing a jab with poor form.

Asked why coaching with an artificial intelligence aspect was an integral push for Moov, Hu and Li said it came from personal experience. "There's an energy in working with a coach," said Li, an avid runner who believes in the inspiration, but also reinforcement, a coach can provide. "When I cheat, she yells at me, but it's still fun. I don't have a lot of time to do that now, especially doing a startup, so I wanted a coach with me 24/7," she added.

Hu sees value in coaches from the perspective of not just creating a more engaging experience with software as a human replacement, but in also creating an environment where one can reap the most benefit from a situation in which a real-life, costly coach is not an option for most people. "The best sport I can do is snowboarding. Why? Because I had a coach from the beginning," explained Hu. "So why not bring a coach to everybody?"

Moov's boxing exercise contains a video component with an AI-powered human coach, as well as a gamification aspect that keeps score. Moov

The company is hoping to expand the native components of its app into activities like martial arts, golfing, and yoga, but is also releasing an SDK for developers to create their own add-ons to Moov.

At the end of each workout, stats are readily available on performance, calories burned, and data-based comparisons to previous efforts. There's not a Web dashboard yet like you get with Jawbone or Fitbit devices, but the final product that is expected to ship to the first preorder customers will incorporate a robust report system for each of its different workout sectors.

Still, the deep-diving capability is there. On an iPad, Hu showed off the different ways the team experimented with perfecting the device's ability to monitor running technique and stats by comparing a Stanford runner with a professional coach and experimenting with different levels of intricate data the Moov can glean from workouts. The team spent its first months with no clear goal in sight, wrapped up in research and development, eventually incorporating biomechanics research from Harvard, sports science research from University of Cape Town, and ergonomics research from Stanford to inform all aspects of Moov.

That kind of data is very raw, Li and Hu admit, but "in the future, it will be more user-friendly," Hu said. "It'll be for advanced users, but for normal users -- it's there if they want to see," he added. "Otherwise, the coach will tell them everything."

Where Moov fits in among the new breed of fitness trackers

Moov

Like competing devices, Moov is water-resistant, so it can be worn in the shower, and performs the basic functions like monitoring one's daily sleep and step count independent from any exercising. What it doesn't contain are some of the more standard features of pricier wearables like the recently unveiled Samsung Gear Fit.

Moov does not have a heart-rate monitor -- the company is considering it for future releases -- and no screen with which to transmit information like time of day or steps walked, a feature established wearable-maker Fitbit found imperative when expanding upon its Flex wristband to design the Fitbit Force last year. And a data-displaying screen has been present in the Nike FuelBand since its launch in 2012.

Where Moov thinks it can surpass its current competitors is its ability to be better than Fitbit and Jawbone's devices, while also being cheaper than the slew of upcoming, high-quality trackers trying to bring more powerful tech to wearable fitness. Effectively, that means a low-cost device that does more than what we've come to expect from a $100 tracker that will appeal to both the hardcore fitness community and tech-savvy exercise newbies.

After all, the team behind Moov, which is currently less than 10 people, is certainly not the first group to postulate that a fitness tracker could be more than a fancy-looking pedometer. Products pushing the ability to tell us what to do and how to change, instead of just tracking and spitting out useless data, are sprouting up left and right.

The Atlas fitness tracker -- a futuristic-looking wrist-worn device with a protruding perpendicular screen -- is currently up on Indiegogo with more than $500,000 in funding and 11 days to go, having surpassed its $125,000 goal long ago. Amiigo, a company making a device with the power of Moov and Atlas but in as slim a form factor as possible, last year performed very much the same on Indiegogo as Atlas is performing now.

The Atlas is one of a growing number of wearable devices trying to bring a next-gen vision of fitness trackers to market through crowdfunding. Atlas

Both are capable of identifying exercises and adjusting the tracking accordingly, monitoring your heart rate, and giving real-time feedback. Amiigo even purports to measure your body temperature, and wants users to use its two sensors simultaneously, one for your wrist and one for your ankle, for even more accuracy. And then there's Flyfit, which launched on Kickstarter earlier this month and forgoes some of the flashier, more expensive elements like heart-rate monitoring and a display, but still aims to give real-time feedback and identify different activities.

Moov is a bit of an outlier here, relying not on Indiegogo or Kickstarter, setting a modest funding goal, and selling at an initial preorder price far lower than its crowdfunding companions. Atlas hopes to retail its device for $225 and has a current pledge price of $169, while Amiigo's lowest price for one of its units was $89 with a hike to $125 at retail. Flyfit is offering one device now for $99 as a Kickstarter pledge tier with an expected retail price of $139.

Furthermore, Moov wants to deliver by July, an incredibly ambitious time frame, though the company claims its suppliers are simply waiting for the call to get going on manufacturing. Atlas, on the other hand, is promising December of this year, and Amiigo, which funded successfully in January of 2013, has run into a series of now-standard manufacturing hurdles that most crowdfunded hardware projects run into. Flyfit is shooting for August.

Still, the perspective of Moov's co-founders is very much in line with what most are thinking about wearable tech these days. "We think all the wearable devices in the market were wrong," Hu said. "To us, it's not that useful, step counting," Li added. "It's just a number."

Whether or not Moov will be the device to break the mold is uncertain -- the amount of high-quality competition is seemingly endless these days -- and there's no way to know for certain that the team will be able to move faster than any of the competing companies vying to be the first to deliver true next-gen fitness trackers. But Hu and his team sound less concerned with competition than with unlocking the potential of fitness trackers that do more than count steps.

"These sensors capture really, really rich data," Hu said. "There's a lot more we need to explore."

About the author

Nick Statt is a staff writer for CNET. He previously wrote for ReadWrite and was a news associate at the social magazine app Flipboard. He spends a questionable amount of his free time contemplating his relationship with video games while continuously exploring the convergence of tech, science and pop culture.

 

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