The Atlas Wristband is a wearable that stands with few others. Aside from its Tetris block looks, it's one of the few devices that is truly built for the gym. It counts reps and automatically recognises a growing catalogue of exercises.
After raising $500,000 on Indiegogo back in 2014, the Austin based startup launched the first generation Wristband in 2015. We reviewed it and while it was by no means perfect, we definitely saw more positives than negatives. It fared much better in our big gym tracker test.
Less than a year later, Atlas Wearables is already moving forward with the second generation Wristband. It still has that same unique design but it's making significant changes in the software department, upping the memory, expanding the exercise library database and enabling you to store more freestyle exercises to work out with. It's also good for swimming now. A feature that was promised with the first version.
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CEO Peter Li is clearly pleased with how well the Atlas Wristband has been received so far but does acknowledge that the team is still working to get the wearable where they really want it to be. "The feedback from users pretty much across the board has been that they wanted a learning mode that gives 100% coverage of a workout instead of 70-75% coverage, which is what you get with the first version," Li told us. "What people want is the ability to add other activities they want to add."
As Li continues to tweak and hone the software, he acknowledges that it has been a challenge to get people to realise that Atlas wasn't just your average fitness tracker and most certainly not a Fitbit rival.
"Initially when we first launched, we weren't explicit enough that we were not in the business of tracking your steps," Li said. "If you want to do that, download an app on your phone and you can do it for free. We're not in the pedometer business.
"We're in the industry of fitness success. We are little bit different from Fitbit, which is about getting people off the couch. We provide motivation by tracking everything giving you tangible results on what does and doesn't work and we can guide you on workout routines. You have the guidance, you know what to do, you have the motivation, you see the results. There is a place for both Fitbit and Atlas and for other similar products too though."
Crucial to the Atlas ecosystem is the ability to regularly update the exercise database that enables the hardware and software to recognise what you're doing and how you're doing them.
"Historically, we've had something called the Atlas Sweat Lab, which we have locally here in Austin," Li explained. "What we've done in the past, before the release of the new software was to invite personal trainers from boot camps, private gyms, public gyms, digital trainers who work out in the greater Austin area to come to our gym at our office, experience the Atlas and work out with us in order to help build the database with us. That enables us to compare your form to that of a personal trainer with half a decade of experience."
I think the association with the pedometer and fitness tracker facade is starting to cool down
This Sweat Lab has played a big part in shaping the development of the Wristband 2. A tracker that has surfaced quicker than an Apple Watch refresh. So why the short space between hardware launches? Li explained that it was always the strategy to add new versions. "We pretty much decided this would be the case from the beginning," Li said. "We always wanted to improve the hardware and the software. For instance, it now supports more activities in Freestyle mode. The first Wristband was limited to about 15, and now it's up to 50 or 70 depending on the type of activities you want to add. With the new Atlas Wristband 2 software, we're able to amplify the Atlas Sweat Lab initiative to any user who wants to contribute to the online database."
Change is coming
As Atlas Wearables seeks to expand the abilities of its own tracker, Li recognises that big changes are afoot for the fitness tracker that we know today, echoing the sentiments of a recent chat we had with MyZone CEO Dave Wright. "I think the association with the pedometer and fitness tracker facade is starting to cool down, which is good for us," Li said.
"Users are starting to realise the limitations of what a Jawbone can do or what can a Fitbit can do for you. The key reason people purchase a Fitbit these days is that it can track heart rate. That's just a single component. People hardly talk about the step count. With heart rate monitoring, that can help me understand my cardiovascular strength. You shouldn't be limited to one or two metrics to quantify your health.
"Based on my experience in the biomechanical space, it's very difficult to find a single indicator to determine human fitness and health," he continued. "That's where we feel we can play part by measuring rest time, tempo, max hear rate per activity, recovery in BPM after an exercise. We think recovery rate is a much better measurement than maximum heart rate and heart rate average.
"10,000 steps is not all that insightful unless you look at some studies in Japan. There's no real proof that will get you certain results that you want. Research in physiology shows how rep times and rest times, and tempo of your motion can affect hypertrophy and fat burn."
On the rather topical subject of heart rate, Li has some interesting things to say about accuracy, especially when a company like Fitbit has come under scrutiny recently for allegedly not delivering accurate heart rate data. "The tech we use is more advanced than others used out there," Li explained. "The optical technology we use has two green LEDs and one amber LED, which helps with a broader range of skin shades. We get an accuracy bump there.
"We also have an algorithm that actually looks at the type of motion you're doing to remove motion artefacts from the bpm estimator. That's where a lot of other products fail. If you start running, walking or jogging of whatever with a Fitbit or Apple Watch, it will double or half your heart rate, because it's measuring the motion of the arm, not the heart rate."
Something Li is not concerned about is the trend of companies moving away from the wrist, whether that's hearables like the Samsung Gear IconX or the emergence of smart clothing that can offer full body tracking.
"The wrist in our opinion is one of the best places to be for tracking the largest number of distinct activities as opposed to other parts of the body," he said. "If you're doing a seated leg extension exercise where you're working your quads and not really using your wrist at all, your wrist can't measure that. Outside of that with the likes of squats, deadlifts, medicine ball workouts and more, those can be tracked from the wrist.
"Looking at other companies with slightly different technologies, I think one of the limitations of most other products out there is that there very much narrow in terms of their motion AI. You have to follow very specific prescriptions.
"Moov is very interesting. But it misses a lot on the results tracking and motivation perspective. We believe it misses some of the key metrics really required."
So what does the immediate and long term future hold for this ambitious startup? "The learning mode is a big deal for us with the Wristband 2," Li told us. "We want our exercise database covering as many exercises as possible for all the different genres of fitness.
"We also want to build the database and the intelligence behind the fitness AI to identify trends. So the idea is we can say if you are a type of person that's male, a certain height and weight and your goal is to get to another weight, we'll be able to look through our database and find people like that. Then we can see what does work and what doesn't work.
"We really want to become a reliable resource for people to be able to detect what exercises will truly get you to your goal the fastest."