Fitness, fatness and forty winks: Withings wants you to get to know yourself

We speak to the Cédric Hutchings about the future of wearable tech
Withings wants you to know yourself better

The trouble with most wearables is that they’re not all that wearable. That’s why a smartwatch like the Moto 360 has caused such a storm even though we know almost nothing about it. We only really have an idea of what it might do because of its Android Wear OS, but how long the battery lasts, how big it is, or what it even looks like beyond promo videos and glossy product shots is a total mystery. And all of that feels rather key to whether or we’re going to like it when it has the decency to turn up in vivo.

Guide: Best fitness trackers you can buy

So maybe there’s another, already sighted watch for a more tried and tested answer to your wearable dreams?

In October 2014, the Withings Activité arrives on our shelves. It’s beautiful, it’s classic and it’s also smart. It doesn’t care about your phone that much and it doesn’t need charging but, with sensors tucked inside its luxury, Swiss-made frame, it’ll keep you as trim as any other activity tracker out there, only with less coloured rubber and much more style.

More than a wannabe

“We wanted to be very genuine and be very bold,” Withings CEO Cédric Hutchings told Wareable. “Let's be the first true watch, not a watch wannabe, that will integrate these activity trackers. So, we did not take any trade-off or compromise in designing and bringing all the high end materials to really make a beautiful watch.”

With its calf leather strap, touch-sensitive lens and choice of black or tan analogue designs, Hutchings’s mission with the Activité appears very well accomplished, and, accordingly, it won’t come as cheap as most fitness bands you’ll have seen. The price has been set at £320 but perhaps the advantage there is twofold. For one, you won’t see so many people wearing it and, secondly, the bigger investment might give you a greater reason to stick with your fitness regime. That is, after all, still the point of it, as Hutchings confirms.

It's very important to underline that the fact that it looks beautiful serves a purpose

“Obviously we want our product to be attractive and people to love it and want to buy it; obviously.

But it's very important to underline that the fact that it looks beautiful serves a purpose. In all these quantified-self activity trackers, the problem is to have these devices used in the long term. There is a lot of enthusiasm but a lot of them get no usage after six months.

“What we want to do when we develop products is to be able to impact our health and health behaviour and all that doesn't really fly if it's about a gadget that you will use for a couple of months.”

Little differentiation

It’s surprising to hear but Hutchings freely admits that there’s little difference to the norm with Withings’s first activity tracker, the Pulse. Even this award-winning device sees only slightly greater longevity thanks to the tie-in with the company’s hugely successful Smart Body Analyzer Wi-Fi scales which keep tabs on the fat content of your body and records it on the same back-end fitness dashboard.

As of this week, there’s also the Withings Aura sleep monitor to throw into the mix. The under-mattress sensor measures your movement, your sleep cycles and your heart rate while the bedside unit examines noise, light and temperature levels. Put it all together and it starts to become a far clearer picture of just how healthy your daily routines are.

“We can be much more accurate and helpful if we show the correlation between activity and having worse sleep quality and putting on some weight,” Hutchings explained. “It shows you the trend, interprets correlation and is relevant in feedback rather than just telling you to walk 10,000 steps every day.

Changing people's bahaviour

“We think that by providing the right set of devices and surrounding sensible environment, we can really impact our health behaviour in the long term. For us, the Activité is creating the next step into bringing a true lifestyle device – a true watch and not a smartwatch.”

And this is the clever part about the Activité – it looks like something that we’re already used to wearing. Most fitness tracker manufacturers - whether they’ve thought about it or nor - are effectively asking potential customers to make that leap of habit and change something as personal and idiosyncratic as their sense of fashion for the sake of technology. That’s not something that everyone is prepared to do, and Hutchings and his partners have recognised this. Not only does it take less persuading but also perhaps less invention and less effort too; recycle the purpose of a current garment rather than design afresh.

“We think we need to reinvent a lot of devices that we have already accepted in our lives,” he told us. “We have a limited footprint in our apartments or on our bodies. So, we really have to be very creative in reinventing the things that we use or carry. One direction is making truly beautiful devices that become part of our worlds and the second is to be absolutely not in the way.”

We think we need to reinvent a lot of devices that we have already accepted in our lives

Sensors that were previously only the preserve of hospitals are now cheap enough to be packaged into small footprint, consumers devices; and all with enough processing power and software to record anything you could want. The more companies like Withings can pack into our lives in a seamless way, the more accurate the analysis of our physical state can be.

Combine that with connected measures of our environment and you get something increasingly insightful; perhaps even an appreciation of our mental health and how we might improve it. As far as Hutchings and Withings are concerned, the more information, the better, and to do that they want us to wear more technology than ever before.

“We think that we can put each of us in the role of managing our own health by developing sensors that are not called sensors. Any textile we already wear will have to be smarter. The watch is not the end of the story.”

Connected utopia vs Orwellian nightmare

To our wearable-primitive, connected home-newcomer culture, though, it’s easy to reach a state of brain overload at this point where the natural reaction becomes one of Huxleyan nightmare rather than the embrace of a seamlessly advanced future. The truth is that it’s hard to imagine the scene where we walk to the bathroom mirror and are presented with a dashboard of our health, habits and environment. Is it a case of perfection through control or simply too much information?

“If you went into a car with no dashboard, no fuel tank, no speedometer, you would not feel very safe and comfortable,” argues Hutchings. “In the future, when we look back at the years when we had absolutely no feedback on our health, we’ll not feel very comfortable about that. It will feel more and more natural to have this. Adding control is adding rationality into behaviour. It’s the lack of control that brings in our lack of rationality.”

Reinventing what we already own

As ever with wearable technology, the key is in the delivery, and those pillars of effortless connectivity and reinvention of what we already own are part of a company ethos that will likely serve Withings well.

It’s hard to say whether we’d prefer to know, like Hutchings suggests, exactly what that fillet steak has done to us, or if a life without any ignorance of our health removes too much of the bliss.

Budget options: Best fitness trackers under £50

What’s clear is though, is that, like all the best wearable companies, the plan for Withings is about far more than beautiful looking wristwear, even if that is the current focus of our corner of the tech world.

So, what’s the next hot wearable gadget type? What will be the real lasting impact of wearables? Well, Hutchings doesn’t know for sure but he certainly has a cryptic sense of where we might be.

“This is a first wave that everyone is surfing, and it is spectacular. The big and dramatic and sustainable change is the tide behind it.”

We’ll just have to see what Withings dreams up for us next then.

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