Part 2: That’s Exertainment! The Fascinating History and Future of Fitness Tech

Fitness tech

In addition to being Women’s History Month, March brings us the gift of March Madness. To celebrate these themes in tandem, Distillery is running a four-blog series that features fitness tech innovation and two tales of successful health-focused businesses founded by women, ClassPass and 23andMe. Welcome to the second blog in the series: part two of our look at the past, present, and future of fitness technology.

Part Two: Fitness Finds the Fun and Fixes the Flats

As the Internet of Things continues to expand its reach into new frontiers of our lives and our work, it’s worth looking back at one of the very first industries to focus on inventing data-tracking, connectivity-enabling devices and iOS/Android apps that improve the quality of our lives: fitness. In part one, we looked back at the earliest examples of fitness tracking technology and the motivations behind its ongoing innovation. Below, in part two, we examine how computer gaming, virtual reality (VR), artificial intelligence (AI), our yearning for community, and our irrepressible desire for optimum convenience have played a role in shaping fitness tech’s next phases.

“How can I make this more fun, motivating, and convenient?”

Now that we could see how we were doing over time, we sought ways to make physical fitness yet more motivating, fun, and easily accessible. Granted, the ability to set goals and track data — while using increasingly neat-o technology to do so — is already highly motivating for many. But there was still plenty of room for innovation in how fitness tech could be used to increase enjoyment, engender healthy competition, and make a range of fitness activities more accessible to more people. Thus, welcome to a diverse and highly engaging category of fitness tech that does its best to motivate the less immediately willing masses to explore fitness… often within the comfort of their own living rooms.

Exergaming, Exertainment, or Whatever You Want to Call It

Though the proliferation of computer gaming has been blamed for breeding new generations of couch potatoes, some gaming industry visionaries have imagined a world in which exercise can be gamified for increased fun, motivation, and accessibility. The following are some of exergaming’s coolest and most notable entrants.

Nintendo Power Pad

After acquiring the North American rights for the Japan-marketed Family Trainer game accessory from Bandai, Nintendo rebranded it, releasing the Power Pad in the US in 1988. A flexible, two-sided vinyl mat that encased twelve pressure sensors, the accessory could be used with exercise-focused games such the Olympic-themed Athletic World, the running-focused World Class Track Meet, the summer-camp-style contest-themed Super Team Games, the self-explanatory Aerobics Studio, and the oddly physically taxing Street Cop, which let you crouch, mad-dash, and club your way to clearing the streets of criminal activity.

Exertainment LifeCycle

Nintendo and LifeFitness teamed up to release the Exertainment LifeCycle way back in 1994. Exclaims the enthusiastic promotional video host with the incredibly long tie, “The exercise is the game,” explaining that this is “the first fitness product that engages both your body and your mind.” Later in the video, enthusiastic users report having so much fun they “forgot” they were exercising. The Exertainment LifeCycle worked with Nintendo-produced programs such as Mountain Bike Rally and Program Manager (your “personal fitness coach”). The bike was sold to consumers and gyms throughout North America in the mid-1990s.

Dance Dance Revolution (DDR)

Released in North America in 1999, the music video game features a dance platform with colored arrows. Players follow the game’s visual and musical cues to “dance” on the platform, receiving scoring based on accuracy and timing and ongoing assessment of how they’re doing (e.g., “marvelous” or “perfect” might flash on your screen while you’re doing well, while “almost” or “miss” will emerge when you’re not doing so hot). Popular in its arcade and home versions, daily DDR has been embraced by some users for the aerobic exercise it provides. DDR’s “workout mode” lets users self-report weight changes and make a diary of calories burned. One user reported losing more than 150 pounds solely through DDR.

Wii Fit

Released in 2007 in Japan and 2008 in the US, Europe, and Australia, Wii Fit is credited with bringing the concept of exergaming into living rooms worldwide and helping “health games” be taken seriously as the holy cash cow they clearly are. Within 18 months of its release, Wii Fit’s sales had already exceeded $18M, and by 2012, it had sold more than 22.67 million copies worldwide. Via its Balance Board accessory, it can detect a person’s weight, body mass index (BMI), and center of balance. Activities range across a wide spectrum of activities, including yoga, strength training, aerobics (e.g., Hula Hoop, Basic Run, Rhythm Boxing), and balance games (e.g., Ski Jump, Tightrope Walk, Balance Bubble, Snowboard Slalom). Though its health benefits are often disputed, it definitely engaged a wider swath of the population than any previous attempt at exergaming. Even grandma would try out your Wii Fit.

Black Box VR

While working out can get boring, video games can be notoriously addicting. A 2018 “Best of CES” finalist and winner, startup Black Box VR aims to alleviate gym boredom by using a VR headset and electronic resistance cables to create a highly sensory, fully immersive experience that gives you a workout while making you feel like you’re doing things like throwing fireballs at a dragon with your fists. As Black Box explains, “Your body is the controller” and “You are the hero.” AI technology helps you safely level up along with improved performance. Though they hope to release a home version within a few years, initially, Black Box will be available only at gyms. The company’s first two boutique gyms will be located in Manhattan and Beverly Hills, and they also plan to license the technology to other gym chains hoping to set their offerings apart.


Using a gyroscope that requires you to plank, stabilize major muscle groups, and work on your reflexes, ICAROS workouts simulate flying or driving through virtual landscapes (e.g., snow-capped mountain ranges). The system relies on the ICAROS gyroscope device, a controller, and a VR headset. ICAROS systems are already available for purchase by gyms or consumers, and an SDK enables external developers to develop new games.

AI Coaches: Alexa Won’t Tell You What to Do, but These Coaches Will

Fitness tech innovation has already produced the first generation of fully digital AI coaches. Whether your goal is to be able to take your trainer everywhere with you, work with a trainer who won’t spend time telling you all about their cat, or avoid paying the often high costs of a human personal trainer, this genre wants to cater to your individualized needs. While a quick review of user feedback shows that many of these products are still working the bugs out, it’ll be interesting to see how the genre develops. For just a few representative examples currently on the market:

  • LifeBeam’s Vi bio-sensing headphones tout the “world’s first AI personal trainer,” Vi, which — drawing on real-time data about your in-ear heart rate, pace, distance, and step rate — gives you feedback and coaching as you run. Via the companion app, you can choose customized training plans (e.g., 5k, 10k, Half Marathon, Walk to Run, Weight Loss). They’re also an incredibly high-quality set of headphones featuring Harman/Kardon audio.
  • Lumo Run is an iOS-compatible clip-on sensor and app designed to function as your portable running coach, giving you real-time suggestions on how to improve your form.
  • ShotTracker Team uses in-net sensors, a special ShotTracker basketball, and player shoe sensors to produce real-time stats and analytics and instant feedback about player and team performance. Even Magic Johnson is a fan.
  • Fitbit has expanded its in-app offerings with a “Guidance” tab that dispenses fitness-focused advice based on your performance and recommends workouts on Fitbit’s companion Fitstar app. Fitstar offers guided video workouts, customized fitness plans featuring virtual trainers, and workout-compatible playlists.

Because — for now, at least — digital coaching devices rely solely on faceless data to formulate their feedback, it does have limitations: They read data, but they can’t read people. With digital coaches, specific data points will produce a specific response, regardless of the person producing the data points. In real life, different athletes require different approaches to coaching. For example, some athletes thrive under “tough love” conditions, embracing feedback to fuel performance. Other athletes need a lighter touch that includes more flexibility and positive reinforcement, since they may be prone to letting the AI coaches’ repeated reminders and requests make them feel like a failure.

Peloton: Tech-enabled, Human-supported, and Living-room-friendly

Peloton was founded in 2012 by a group of busy, NYC-based cycling-loving professionals who’d been having trouble finding workouts that consistently fit their schedules. The bikes are specialized — and pricy — internet-connected stationary bikes with 22-inch touchscreens attached. Any time of day or night, riders can live-stream classes hosted by human instructors from Peloton’s HYC HQ, or access a library of pre-recorded workouts, scenic rides, and off-the-bike workouts. The system embeds cameras that riders can turn on or off, as well as speakers that broadcast session audio. The subscription-based service runs on a custom Peloton operating system built atop Android.
What sets Peloton apart for most users seems to be three-fold:

  • It’s convenient. 24/7, you can effectively “go to” an exhilarating, heart-pumping live spin class while simultaneously remaining in the comfort of your own living room.
  • It’s a community, and you’re a part of it — even while in your living room. Anybody who’s ever attended a live exercise class of any sort will understand the supportive “you’ve got this” vibe and energy boost that exercising within a community brings. The instructors of the live-streamed classes interact with the in-person riders who’ve paid to attend the live sessions as well as the remote, living-room riders, calling out birthdays and notable achievements (e.g., someone’s 100th ride) based on real-time participant data. Riders often choose classes based on the personalities, music preferences, and individualized riding styles of the Peloton instructors. In other words, for Peloton, the technology is augmented by the very necessary presence of real human interaction.
  • Peloton’s supportive community engenders healthy competition. Peloton monitors include a “leaderboard” that shows riders their ranks among all participating riders. Riders report riding harder and longer simply by virtue of seeing where they are on the ever-prominent leaderboard.

The problem with Peloton’s model is that it’s cost-prohibitive for many. Though there is a lower-cost option on offer, it strips away much of the functionality and interactivity of the full Peloton experience. Using a stationary bike of your choice and Peloton’s iOS mobile app on your iPhone or iPad, you can follow along with classes. But your metrics aren’t tracked via the app (after all, it’s not connected to your bike), and you won’t show up on that all-important leaderboard.
Peloton’s impressive success is attributable in part to the fact that while their model embraces tech, it doesn’t cut actual human connection out of the equation. Instead, it recognizes its importance, encouraging users to create relationships with the instructors and within the wider Peloton community. And they’re not done expanding that community. At CES 2018, Peloton unveiled a new product that promised to expand the company’s reach yet further: a connected treadmill that gives access to live-streamed and recorded running workouts, cross-training-style classes, and guided hikes. Runners, welcome to Peloton!

Nearly Invisible Fitness Tech: Optimum Comfort and Convenience

As fitness technology continues to advance, it’s also going to shrink… in size. When you’re exercising, it’s clearly preferable to wear the least cumbersome devices possible. If they have the added bonus of being nearly undetectable to others, even better. For consumers, that means a remarkably diverse present and future of fitness-focused wearables that include the following representative examples:

  • Smart rings — The Motiv ring automatically tracks heart rate, sleep, and steps. With a narrow, waterproof design and three-day battery life, it’s easy to forget about. Users say it’s not perfect, however: It has no indicators or vibrations, which means you have to look at the companion app to get any feedback, and as of now it only works on iOS.
  • Smart earwear — In-ear, wireless Bluetooth smart headphones like Vi (described above) don’t look measurably different from their non-smart counterparts, making them one of the least intrusive types of fitness technology.
  • Smart clothing — Representative examples include the following:
    • OMsignal is developing sports bras and other apparel that can track your biometric and physical activity, including in bonus categories like stamina, run dynamics, and workout readiness. The company offers SDKs and APIs to allow anyone to build using their technology.
    • Sensoria fitness socks have textile sensors that pair with Bluetooth anklets to track performance while analyzing things like foot landing technique, helping you identify and correct injury-prone running styles. Sensoria also offers up an SDK that lets others harness their technology across garments and devices.
    • Hexoskin’s smart shirts use built-in all-textile sensors that pair with a recording device to track your biometric data.
    • Athos’ compression shorts use sensors embedded in the garments to collect data about which of your muscles are firing and how much they’re being exerted.
    • LikeAGlove’s smart shorts help you measure and track changes to your body’s shape. You can match your measurements to jeans from a range of brands, theoretically ensuring that a specific cut is legitimately right for you.
    • Adidas’ heated trousers warm athletes’ legs in advance of exercise, allowing them to conserve energy for competition
  • Smart shoes — Smart shoes track performance while helping you improve your technique and run (or simply exist) more safely:
    • Sensoria and VIVOBAREFOOT collaborated on a pressure-sensing, GPS-enabled running shoe that measures speed, pace, cadence, foot landing technique, time on the ground, impact score, and (eventually) asymmetry and toe engagement, whatever those things are.
    • The DIGITSOLE E-Vone smart shoes, able to notify your friends, family, or emergency medical services if you fall while wearing them, focus on ensuring safety for those who are alone (e.g., construction workers, older adults).

Where Will Fitness Tech Go Next?

Without a doubt, the startups and enterprises behind fitness tech’s next iterations will continue to be influenced primarily by the drivers we’ve focused on above: convenience, fun, and motivation. In our busy, uber-connected lives, it can be difficult to carve out time and find motivation for fitness. That’s why smart fitness industry entrepreneurs and enterprises will stay focused on:

  • Creating devices, wearables, and iOS/Android apps that:
    • Make exercising ever easier and more convenient, focusing on optimizing size, comfort, ease of use (e.g., extending battery life), connectivity, and body/mind health benefits to users
    • Are accessible to users of different fitness, experience, and income levels
    • Are accessible via a wider range of smartphones
    • Embrace and refine AI coaching to address users’ individualized needs
    • Embed gamification and interaction (e.g., VR, AR) that motivates users, keeps the devices and apps central to their lives, and helps make fitness more fun
    • Leverage user feedback to continually improve features and performance
  • Creating user communities that:
    • Motivate users by engendering healthy competition
    • Enable and actively support a sense of personal connection and investment
    • Use digital spaces to expand their pools of users and scale their businesses

After all, in a world where the future of fitness already involves throwing fireballs with your fists and flying over the Andes while working on your six-pack, where are the limits? Nowhere.

Want to find out more about how Distillery helps startups and enterprises to build the products that people want next? Let us know!

previous next