Guess who's entered the world of wearable fitness tech? Leapfrog, makers of tablets and other learning toys for young children, have unveiled the LeapBand, a fitness toy for kids. I had a chance to look at one during a press preview, and it's definitely what it looks like: a virtual pet cross-bred with a fitness tracker. And, in a way, that's a really smart idea.
Coming to the US and UK in August for $40 or £30 (Australian availability has not yet been announced), it looks more like a toy than a tool. Not surprising, considering the company's other products.
So, what is it? It's a wrist-worn, chunky plastic pedometer-equipped device, with its own color screen and buttons. The LeapBand recharges and is water-resistant, but the basic idea is that it has its own on-board set of eight virtual pets that can be fed and played with via mini-games. Those games are fueled by physical activities tracked by the band.
The eight different Pet Pals are a cat, dog, dragon, monkey, panda, penguin, robot and unicorn, based on characters in LeapFrog's existing character franchises. They're unlocked as points are earned through movement, like a child-friendly variant of Nike Fuel.
There are also a few mini-games where kids care for their personalized pet: a Pet Salon, a rhythm-based dance game, and a catch-the-healthy-food game. None of these are based on activity points, but are rewards to build more attachment to the virtual pet. They're very reminiscent of Tamagotchi, or recent Furby app games.
To encourage extra movement, there are different 10-second activities pre-loaded on the LeapBand, which tell kids to do various fun or weird things to earn points. You could pop like popcorn, or "leap up and make a roar like a tiger," which I ended up getting. A small button at the top triggers a voice command that comes out of the LeapBand's small speaker. It's a little hard to hear, but I was in a crowded room full of roaring tigers. There are 10 preloaded activities on the LeapBand itself, but there are 40 additional free challenges that can be loaded via Leapfrog's PC app.
The LeapBand doesn't use Bluetooth or wireless syncing: instead, it connects via USB to a PC, where parents sync activity data, install extra activities, or control parental settings such as limiting play time during the day, or setting the LeapBand to silent mode when your kids are at school.
The LeapBand has a companion app, too, called Petathlon, that has the virtual pets competing in extra mini-games. It runs on iOS, Android, and Leapfrog's own LeapPad Ultra tablet. It syncs activity data and the virtual pet via the PC app, and unlocks extras to import back on the band.
The band lasts between 4-6 days on a charge, has 4MB of onboard storage, and has a 1.44-inch, 128x128-pixel screen. It's a watch, too, with a stopwatch for timing activities. The band on the units I saw will be replaced with more watchband-like ones in the final versions, for a more secure fit.
Is LeapBand silly? Sure, in a sense, because why should little children need a gadget to be active? But there are little kids that aren't active enough, and the idea of using games to motivate fitness is smart: in fact, I wish more fitness trackers worked with games. I could see a lot of kids liking LeapBand just because it's a virtual pet on a wrist, and looks a little like a watch. Stay tuned to see if it becomes the ultimate classroom distraction once they start playing with it all day long, or if parents find a way to encourage responsible use.
If LeapBand proves nothing else, it's that fitness bands have truly reached saturation point. But having a little fun with wearable fitness tech is a welcome idea that should be better incorporated across the board, not just for children.