Google's James Park: The Pixel Watch Is Just the Beginning of Fitbit's Crossover

In an exclusive interview, Fitbit co-founder and Google's wearables head discusses why the Pixel Watch is what it is, and what could come next.

Scott Stein Editor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
Expertise VR and AR | Gaming | Metaverse technologies | Wearable tech | Tablets Credentials
  • Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
Lisa Eadicicco Senior Editor
Lisa Eadicicco is a senior editor for CNET covering mobile devices. She has been writing about technology for almost a decade. Prior to joining CNET, Lisa served as a senior tech correspondent at Insider covering Apple and the broader consumer tech industry. She was also previously a tech columnist for Time Magazine and got her start as a staff writer for Laptop Mag and Tom's Guide.
Expertise Apple | Samsung | Google | Smartphones | Smartwatches | Wearables | Fitness trackers
Scott Stein
Lisa Eadicicco
11 min read

Google's first Pixel smartwatch has been a long time coming: It was in 2014 that Google first developed Android Wear. But the Pixel Watch, revealed at Google's fall Pixel event, feels like a new idea. Running on Fitbit's health and fitness platform and boasting a much-improved design, the Pixel Watch seems refined, advanced and very much an Apple Watch competitor. Is it also the future of Fitbit and fitness wearables?

Earlier this year we spoke with James Park, Fitbit's co-founder and now vice president and general manager for Google's wearables group, about how Fitbit's lineup was evolving. This week, now that the Pixel Watch has been announced alongside the Pixel 7 and Pixel 7 Pro, we followed up with Park about what the Pixel Watch is and where it could be heading next.

Included below is our entire conversation, lightly edited for clarity. 

Google Pixel Watch showing sleep stages

The Google Pixel Watch is the first Fitbit Wear OS watch. Fitbit services could extend beyond to other devices, too.


Do you imagine this being kind of the model for where Wear OS watches are going?
I think the hope is that it's the, you know, the best version that Google and Fitbit can collectively put forth. And I think you can see it in the product. It has a lot of the best of Google. It has a Google home app, Google Maps, Calendar, YouTube. And one of the most killer apps for wearables today is health and fitness. Now we're able to deeply integrate Fitbit functionality into the watch as well.

I was anticipating that some Fitbit features would be there, but it looks like a pretty complete Fitbit experience.
I think that's one of the reasons that we've we've waited for this moment, is to make sure that we got the best of Fitbit into this product. Again, one of the key reasons that people buy and enjoy and benefit from wearables is really getting insights and help around health and fitness.

Where do you see [the Pixel Watch] in relation to the other Fitbit wearables that are out now?
It's really about a portfolio approach. The Google Pixel Watch really is about being Google's flagship premium smartwatch that has what we call personal intelligence, in the form of Google apps combined with health and fitness. But because of the portfolio approach, we're trying to create devices and solutions that have different price points, different feature sets, so that it gives people different ways to enter the ecosystem.

And those are also iOS-compatible. And I know the Pixel Watch is for Android. Do you imagine that that's going to be a clear differentiator going forward?
We'll have to see over time. I mean, today, the Google Pixel Watch is the best companion for the Pixel phone. But clearly, you know, we also have a health mission which is about making these technologies accessible and affordable to as many people as possible. So we'll have to see whether that evolves over time.

Pixel Watch with a simple sweep-hands watch face

The Pixel Watch features a rounded design.


The heart rate [on the Pixel Watch] has very high ping rate (once per second). It sounds like it's it's putting itself in a territory that's more like fitness trackers and kind of reaching a different level than other smartwatches.
The thing I mentioned in the keynote was that heart rate is such a foundation of so many of the health and fitness experiences. That's why we paid a lot of attention to it. There's a lot of investment in taking Google machine learning expertise and applying it to the problem. So it's resulted in the best heart rate tracking that Fitbit's ever developed. And it's the foundation of Active Zone Minutes, sleep tracking, our daily Readiness Score. It's a critically important feature and one we've invested a lot into.

Some of Fitbit's sensor features aren't here -- temperature tracking, stress tracking. Blood oxygen is coming in an update. It sounds like heart rate, which I know is the core of many things, is being built up first and perfected. Do you imagine other sensors being added on to the platform over time?
Over time, yes. One of the things that we want to do is we want to release products that have really amazing fit and finish and polish and are bug free. With Google Pixel Watch, we invested in heart rate. Then you'll see other technologies and sensors around health and fitness move into this line of products over time.

Twenty-four hours for battery life sounds not bad for smartwatches, but it's definitely different from other Fitbits. How do you imagine it in terms of use or do you see that getting better over time?
With what we call full OS devices, whether it's running, you know, other competitive OSes or Wear OS, battery life is definitely a challenge when you want to run things like Gmail or calendar, Maps, etc. It's definitely a challenging problem. That's why we also have the portfolio approach today. If you want a device with super long battery life, we have the Fitbit line of products which have some of the helpful features, but it's more focused on fitness and health and long battery life, and cross-platform compatibility. If you want the best of Wear OS and the best companion to the Pixel phone that has true smarts and health and fitness, then, you know, the Pixel Watch is where it's at.

With some of the new features with cellular, the Play Store, and with Fitbit being on board and with Google being, you know, what Google is, what sort of opportunities do you see coming? Because it sounds like Fitbit could also be unleashed to come up with some new ideas on a very connected Google and Android ecosystem.
With Google and Pixel, what we want to do is create a portfolio of experiences that work really well together. And it's not just tied to the hardware as well. One of the things we want to do with Fitbit is make it available on as many devices and experiences as possible, whether it's the watch or the phone or the tablet. I'd hate to see it constrained just to one type of experience.

Google Pixel Watch emoji face

The Pixel Watch integrates a lot of Fitbit features.


I have to ask because I've liked a lot of the Fitbit watch faces in the past, do you imagine sort of like a cross-pollination of those [on Pixel Watch]?
I think that there's a lot of ideas that can cross-pollinate. One of the challenges is the Fitbit line of products has a squircle display and the Google Pixel Watch has a circle display, There's definitely ideas that we can take, but we also want to create something new in terms of the experience as well.

When it comes to sleep [tracking], everyone's kind of exploring new ways to to get there: Some methods are using bedside sensors, some are wearing their watches to bed. Do you imagine the vision of sleep changing over time?
The sleep experience, how people sleep and any type of technology or tools that you use to improve it, is actually one of the more personal things around health and fitness. I think people are very sensitive to what they wear on their body when they go to bed, and the type of technology that also gets introduced to the bedroom. Again, that's where the portfolio approach comes into play. 

We do have a Nest product today that can help with sleep tracking if you don't want to wear anything on your body. If you're OK wearing a watch, we have the Google Pixel Watch. We also have the Sense and the Versa. If you want something more minimal, we have something like the Inspire line of products, which are really much more slim, unobtrusive. We have a solution that hopefully works for somebody if if improving their sleep is something that's really important to them.

With a 24-hour battery life [on the Pixel Watch], do you have any recommendations on times to recharge [for sleep tracking]?
I've been using the Pixel Watch a lot in development. I've gotten into a routine where usually it's in the morning for me when I when I shower and then get dressed and grab a quick bite. That's when I charge the watch. And it's worked really well for me. Again, people are going to have to find their own personal rhythm. There's no one-size-fits-all but there's definitely convenient ways to make it work. But I think the great thing is that you should expect up to 24 hours of battery life. That's really the key benchmark that we're trying to hit with this product.

The heart rate stuff is really interesting, especially that you guys are saying this is the most accurate heart rate that you guys have shipped yet, even across Fitbit devices. Can you talk a bit more about that? The Sense 2 has more health features, but yet the Pixel Watch has the most accurate heart rate. Do you think that kind of upgraded heart rate that uses the combination of Fitbit technology and Google's algorithms will come to Fitbit devices in the future as well?
You saw from the video presentation, one of the key things was data collection. The Fitbit team spent so many hours just bringing people into the lab, collecting heart rate data, collecting other exercise data, because as we all know, the amount of data that you can throw at machine learning, that's super critical. 

For me, one of the most exciting things about joining Google was getting access to Google's amazing -- I don't know, it seems like an army of machine learning experts and scientists. They're also super excited to apply their knowledge and skill set to health and fitness data. For everyone involved, it was a super exciting project to be a part of. That's what you see launching with the Google Pixel Watch. And I think over time you can expect to see a lot of these technologies filter both ways, wither from the Google Pixel Watch over to the Fitbit products, and as you mentioned previously, Fitbit technologies making it over to the Pixel watches as well.

Right now that there's only one Pixel Watch. Do you see there being multiple Pixel Watches in the lineup, maybe a version that's cheaper or a bit bigger or smaller?
Obviously I can't talk too much about the future roadmap, but I think you can look at the Google Pixel Watch that you see today as kind of a first step and first investment. And, you know, we'll have to see what the future holds. But we really believe in the portfolio approach. We have the Fitbit classic products today which reach a certain type of people and certain use cases. And then you'll see the Google Pixel Watch lineup of, hopefully, products over time reach different audiences.

I also want to get your thoughts on how Fitbit comes up with your health features, as well as stress tracking, the daily Readiness score. For some of these things that are newer, like stress tracking, is it kind of like a chicken and the egg problem? Like the more data you have, the more you can improve on the features and make them more useful, or do you kind of see it as being the other way around?
That's a great question. From the foundation, I think product development is always a balance of our own intuition and what users say they need. It's not one or the other. We've tried to balance that out, but especially with some of these cutting-edge health technologies, at times we really have to be ahead of what users are envisioning themselves or think they need. And it even started with sleep tracking, in the early days. 

I don't even think people realized that they needed or could benefit from technologies to help track their sleep. It was just something that we had a gut instinct on and released. And stress tracking, I think, falls in that same line of thinking. For us, it's about, what are the challenges around health and fitness that people face today, and especially with COVID and the pandemic, mental health was such a huge issue. 

So our team really, you know, was pretty thoughtful about ways that we could be developing solutions to help address that. I'm pretty excited about the the body response sensor technology, and as you pointed out, the more data we collect as we release these products, it's going to help improve the experience.

Google's Pixel Watch on a wrist, showing the weather

The Pixel Watch runs the newest version of Google's Wear OS.

Lisa Eadicicco/CNET

Heart rate is such a rich source of so many other, you know, potential signs of [health] things. Do you see that the heart rate tracker on Pixel Watch as being more adept at potentially pulling more data out of heart rate?
The idea of applying machine learning to data sets is still something that, in health and fitness, it's still pretty early on. I'm particularly excited to see what new insights we can uncover, because the prior way of developing these algorithms was something that we call heuristics-based, using rules. And it was very manual and you had to fine-tune all these different parameters, and it was a pretty difficult process. But now with machine learning, I think there's new things that we'll uncover along the way that I'm super excited about.

I think about insights and serving up insights, being aware of trends. With Pixel Watch and the software that's in that interface, do you see different ways to potentially evolve that?
Absolutely. I think one of the benefits of machine learning, it'll be much easier for us to generate cross-correlated insights and not just looking at insights generated from one particular sensor like heart rate, but combining, the output from heart rate with the stress sensor with data from sleep tracking, and creating insights that that kind of cross those different types of data.

Is this a watch you're going to want to use mainly Fitbit for? Where does Google Fit come into the picture there? Do you see that those two intertwining or are they going to remain pretty separate?
Google Fit will continue to exist. But, you know, we consider [the] Fitbit experience to be the flagship primary health experience for Google users.

The Pixel Watch on a wrist, showing the time

The Pixel Watch includes access to the Google Play store for additional apps.

Lisa Eadicicco/CNET

There seems like a lot of opportunity for Fitbit-powered parts of the experience to make their way into more apps. Do you see opportunities there because now you have Google Play and a lot of that it seems unleashed to possibly a lot more partners?
Absolutely. Not only Google Play, but we just announced Health Connect as well, which is the Android ecosystem's way of sharing health and fitness data between different devices and services. So I think that's a big way to unlock even more potential, us being able to import data from other devices and services, especially ones that we wouldn't develop ourselves. And then the inverse, which is exporting Fitbit health and fitness data to other services as well. I think you're going to see just a lot of cool things happen now that Health Connect's available to developers.

Are there other things that you see cellular factoring into with Fitbit [on Pixel Watch]? There's some fall detection S.O.S. capabilities. Are there other things that might play in there?
I think Emergency S.O.S. fall detection is a great use case of LTE because I think in the past people have always struggled with what's the use case for LTE on a wearable if you might have your phone. But I think one of the exciting things and possibilities for wearables with cellular capability is that over time, it just starts to gradually take over more and more functionalities of the phone. Figuring out those use cases and making them really helpful and useful to people, it's going to be a really exciting job for me and and the rest of the team and especially the product managers, designers, engineers.

With music being so much a part of fitness, and with music being more available on this watch, do you see more interplay with Fitbit, whether it be music playlists, or suggested playlist routines?
Music and fitness are just are so tightly linked together and go hand to hand. I think the first step for us was just making apps like Spotify and YouTube just available on a device. And then after that, the possibilities are obviously pretty endless.