This is a longstanding problem with these athletic data-gathering gadgets – simply put, they have a hard time measuring anything but a very specific set of exercises, and are generally only useful for running or walking. Most manufacturers are pretty honest about these limitations, but the whole Nike Fuel points system is a deliberate attempt to make you think the FuelBand will finally reward you for all those silent ab crunches and glute contractions you’re secretly doing while sitting at your office desk or during your commute or whenever.
For the most part, the FuelBand does measure overall activity. After all, when you move, your arms tend to move. Sitting on the couch motionless generates virtually no Fuel points, while doing jumping jacks gets the odometer running pretty quick. But in the grey space between those two extremes, the FuelBand is far less than accurate.
What the FuelBand is good for, however, is bookkeeping. Your Nike+ account, which is accessible from anywhere via the web, let’s you know exactly how many Fuel points you’ve earned every day, how that compares to your pre-set goals and when during the day you were most active, among many other metrics. It also displays encouraging messages every time you dump new data in, no matter how terrible that data is.
In a rarity for these kinds of devices, the user interface is actually clean and intuitive. In addition to the hard data, Nike+ also picks up your location and offers you user-generated running routes in the surrounding area. As you’d expect, there’s also the option to share your exercise information with the world through Facebook et. al., but unless you really want everyone to know what a pro-star you are, these tools essentially just end up functioning as a form of advertising for Nike.
The quality of the FuelBand’s user interface – and the fact that lots of people are using the device, thereby creating more user-generated features – narrowly edges it ahead of my previous favourite fitness tracker, the Motorola MOTOACTV (the MM is still better if you’re looking to capture data related to specific sports and workouts, such as cycling). But the central question remains: is this thing actually going to get you to work out more?
In the short term, the answer is probably yes. For the first few days, I found myself taking more walks around the office, hitting the gym more often and generally looking for opportunities to wave my hands around like a maniac, all in an effort to prove to my silently judgemental FuelBand that I could in fact hit my daily Fuel points target.
But this doesn’t last. Eventually, the silliness of the whole Fuel points thing hits you. At one point, while working out on an elliptical machine, I looked down to find the machine’s display and my FuelBand screaming numbers at me: RPMs, time remaining, Fuel points, heart rate, two sets of calorie counts – and all of it just congealed into an indecipherable mush. Instead of having a Matrix-like moment where I could suddenly understand and manipulate the very quantum fabric of my exercise routine, I instead came to the halting realization that I just didn’t give a damn about any of this.
What gadgets like the FuelBand are good for isn’t data, it’s progression. There’s a certain type of person who simply needs to see proof that things are getting better. That’s where the FuelBand’s data-gathering ability serves a purpose – in aggregate. Over time, you can quickly look at charts showing just how much more active you’ve become over the weeks and months. From a psychological standpoint, as far as my experiences go, that actually helps. Knowing that you’re getting better is a motivation to keep getting better.
But even that will only take you so far. In the long-term, I still believe there will never be a fitness tracker that convinces you to keep doing something you hate. If the FuelBand succeeds as a product, it’ll be a sidekick to an activity you already enjoy doing (in my case, that activity happens to be rock-climbing, for which the FuelBand proved fairly useless for a variety of reasons).
And if it fails, let me tell you, there is a massive untapped market for digital cat-collar monitors. The potential to unlock the age-old mysteries of what the hell your cat gets up to when you’re not around? That’s a goldmine of a business opportunity right there.
You’re welcome, Nike.