Meet the boss: Performance Lab's Waynne Dartnall on replacing the PT

How to make a virtual coach as good as the real thing
Meet the boss: Performance Lab

Waynne Dartnall is on a mission to topple the personal trainer. Heading up Performance Lab, a New Zealand based software company, he has presided over the creation of ARDA, a virtual fitness coach that offers individual and personalised coaching, based on your wearable’s data.

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“ARDA is not a device or an app. It’s a coaching engine that adds value to our partners devices and apps,” Dartnall explained.

“It gives people access to their own personal coach, by offering meaningful insights and context,” he continued. “Its mission is to stop data overload, and to interpret your data and offer actionable advice which feeds back into your training.”

Dartnall has spent his life in IT, and has 30 years experience building tech companies, but his heart has always been in fitness. Back in New Zealand he competed in ironman events, before relocating to Silicon Valley, from where he spoke to Wareable.

“The ARDA engine is designed to be embedded into wearable devices. There will be over 112 million wearable devices out there by 2018, and many will only achieve 6 to 12 weeks before being discarded.” Dartnall was in full pitch mode, and the words rolled off his tongue in a practiced way.

The company, under Dartnall's direction, isn’t interested in making the next Garmin killer or wearable device. It simply wants the existing players to adopt its technology, who can then adapt it as they wish. If his words sound practiced, it’s because Dartnall has been pitching a lot, and it’s paid off. Performance Lab recently signed its first deal with gym tech giant ICON Health & Fitness, who will be using ARDA in its machines.

ARDA uses the device’s sensors to collect a host of performance and biometric data, harvesting the information from the sensors on offer. In effect, it’s as powerful as the device it’s embedded in, as a simple accelerometer based device is going to yield less information than a GPS-toting, all powerful sensor array like the Jawbone UP3 or Basis Peak.

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However, ARDA blends details terrain, weather, power, endurance, sleep, incline and fatigue with the usual metrics to build a picture of your training. It then pushes you to up your pace, beat your targets or even take a rest day, based live data.

“All our tools are based on the cardiovascular, but it can manage muscular training and well, and change your training accordingly," Dartnall explained. "Because we know you’re running up a hill, because your heart rate is up, elevation has changed and speed is down, we can tell the type of hill.”

“We can then start seeing your stride rates decreasing and a slow down in performance. We can advise you not to attempt that third hill climb in your session, if we feel you’re not ready, or give you the push to nail it,” he added.

“The app knows what you did yesterday and what you have coming up tomorrow. The biggest inhibitor to training is over training. It’s vital to stopping people doing that.”

While Performance Lab has all the hallmarks of a tech startup, it’s actually been operating for 20 years. Its founders Kerri McMaster and Jon Ackland (two time karate champion and New Zealand national ironman competitor respectively) set up the company to help coach performance athletes, and the last years have been spent using their data to automate the process of boosting goals.

That means that when ARDA coaches your running performance, it’s drawing on the data from decades of international sport. But can an algorithm really replace a personal trainer? Dartnall, somewhat surprisingly, says it can.

“One of the key things is that we’re doing no more or less than a real coach. We can’t predict massive events leading to injury, but we can stop over training and help people progress,” he said.

“We can’t replace a trainer in the absolute sense, but what we know is that people don’t have access to a PT. The reality is that most people can’t afford it, so we’re making the same experience assessable to everyone.”

“The further you go up the training ladder, the more you need a personal trainer. However, further down an algorithm, can absolutely place parts of the training.”

It seems that 2015 is going to be the year that wearables get analytical, and Performance Lab isn't the only company out there that's trying to make sense of the data. However, it's the only one thats willing to go unnoticed as a licensed technology, while the wearable makers of the world take the credit. The challenge for Dartnall and his team is getting the big players to let them in.

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