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Purrell Owens turns out to be an ideal candidate for the Nike FuelBand (Omar El Akkad/The Globe and Mail)
Purrell Owens turns out to be an ideal candidate for the Nike FuelBand (Omar El Akkad/The Globe and Mail)

Nike FuelBand: World-class cat monitor, so-so exercise tracker Add to ...

For a device that constantly sends you inspirational messages regardless of how miserably you’re doing, the Nike FuelBand can still be unusually cruel.

The FuelBand, which landed on our desks last week and is now available in Canada (as of October 30), is the latest entry in the world of fitness trackers. These devices promise to keep track of all kinds of metrics as you work out – calories burned, steps taken, jacks jumped, etc.

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And in the case of the FuelBand, Nike has added a new piece of data: the Fuel point. What is a Fuel point? It’s a measure of how active you are, so the more you move, the more Fuel points you gain. Another way of answering the question is to say that a Fuel point is a marketing phrase Nike just plain made up.

The FuelBand, which will set you back a cool $150, wraps around your wrist like a bracelet. It comes in black and two see-through flavours (black and white). The only one I’ve seen in Canada is the regular black one, which is made of a somewhat weird-smelling plastic rubber and generally feels like a much sturdier LiveStrong bracelet.

There’s only one button on the device, and clicking it repeatedly cycles through the Fuel points you’ve gained that day, calories burned, steps taken, and a digital time readout, so you can use the gadget as a watch. At midnight, everything resets.

Every once in a while (the battery on this thing lasts for days on end), you plug the FuelBand in to your computer to recharge. At that point, the wristband sends all the data it has accumulated to your Nike+ account, which logs all your activity. You can access your Nike+ account from any web-connected computer, or through a smartphone app.

The idea behind the FuelBand (and pretty much all fitness trackers) is to give you a kind of objective measure of how much activity you’re getting. The personal metrics subculture has sort of exploded over the past few years, mainly because it turns out there there are a lot of people out there who are stats geeks and also want to get in better shape. It also turns out there are a lot of people who want everyone to know exactly how much working out they’re doing, and want to share that data on Facebook, Twitter and just about anywhere else. Nike is trying to cash in on those demographics.

And if you do fit that description, you’re probably going to love the FuelBand. It’s easy to set up, easy to use and fairly bomb-proof when it comes to taking an exercise-related beating. If you aren’t part of that demographic, however, you might quickly get the sense that the FuelBand is often operating on blind guesswork.

In the first few days I tested the FuelBand, I put it through a whole host of workouts, from cardio machines to weights to rock-climbing. After every workout, I’d optimistically tap the button on the FuelBand, hoping to see some sort of progress commensurate to the workout. But unless I was running or flailing my arms wildly, it just never happened. After one depressing ab session that included an exercise called dragonflags that absolutely wrecks me every time, I came home and slumped on the couch beside my cat, only to discover that the whole workout had barely earned me a couple hundred Fuel points (a day’s work is between two and five thousand). I would have gotten more Fuel points playing with my cat.

Then it came to me. You know who has a neck roughly the same circumference as my wrist? That’s right, this cat.

A few seconds of disingenuous petting later, my cat was sporting a brand new piece of feline digital neckwear. And wouldn’t you know it, the FuelBand quickly determined that this animal showcased all the statistical hallmarks of a world-class athlete.

(For the purposes of this story, I’m temporarily renaming my cat Purrell Owens).

In about five minutes of chasing a plush bird dangling from a stick, Purrell racked up as many Fuel points as I’d accumulated from an hour-long gym workout. In many ways, this seemed accurate, given that he was jumping twice his body length and was generally more enthused about the whole bird-on-a-stick endeavour than I was about sleepwalking my way through half an hour on the elliptical machine while watching a Dragon’s Den rerun. But it also illustrates the FuelBand’s very bizarre view of exercise.

The FuelBand really, really likes wrist movement (or, if you’re a cat, neck movement), which is to be expected, given that it’s essentially a wrist-mounted accelerometer. In five minutes of light jogging, I picked up as many Fuel points as a 45-minute ab workout. Two-thirds of my daily Fuel points tend to come from walking to and from work (a six-kilometre round trip), as opposed to the furious cardio and rock-climbing sessions I have been cranking out over the past few days in the hope of meeting some arbitrary Fuel points goal I set when I first signed up for a FuelBand account. If you’re a runner or a basketball player or the guy who waves the checkered flag in a NASCAR race, you’re going to generate lots of Fuel points. If you’re a Dhalsim-level yoga guru or a spin class instructor, the FuelBand will likely be frustratingly blind to your kinetic output. Sit on a stationary bike for an hour, and as far as this device is concerned, you may as well have been sipping on a lard smoothie.

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.

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