Fitbit has 'no excuse' for lack of GPS on new trackers

OriginGPS sales boss says there's no reason not to include accurate tracking
Fitbit has 'no excuse' for lack of GPS

There's no technical or economical reason why top-end fitness trackers from the likes of Fitbit and Jawbone shouldn't be packing GPS connectivity. That's the message from Brandon Oakes, sales manager at OriginGPS.

Oakes explained that installing one of Origin's tiny GPS modules would come at a cost of "single digit dollars".

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"I spent six years working at Garmin as a design engineer so I understand that, on the low-end, adding a few dollars of cost is a big deal and I don't want to dismiss that but on the high-end products, in my opinion, there's no excuse not to have it integrated today," he told us.

"I use the Fitbit devices and the trackers that estimate distance and, as a runner, it's just not suitable," he added.

"It could be that they feel that there's a percentage of the market who, for Fitbit trackers, are more interested in seeing 10,000 steps than knowing how far they've gone and, fair enough, serve that market but our message is certainly that there's no technical reason, or economical reason, why it can't be integrated - even from a size perspective."

Fitbit, in particular, has come under fire recently for a lack of additional features with its latest trackers - the Fitbit Blaze and the Fitbit Alta - both of which lack GPS connectivity.

Fitbit Blaze
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We have already seen some high profile wearables feature built-in GPS, such as the Garmin sports watches and the Sony SmartWatch 3, as well as hybrid sports trackers like the Polar M400 and the Garmin Vivoactive. But it's a feature missing from the fitness tracker form factor - so far only Microsoft has included GPS on its Bands.

The obvious reasons for the missing ingredient are size constraints and concerns over battery life, but that could all be set to change.

Explained: How does GPS actually work?

We spoke to Oakes, following the launch of the OriginGPS's revolutionary Multi Micro Spider; a 5.6 mm x 5.6 mm module boasting the world's smallest footprint within a fully integrated multi-GNSS module.

The Israeli company specialises in miniaturised GNSS modules and has already worked with the likes of OMGLife - the people behind the Autographer - to integrate modules into consumer technology. But there are bigger plans to extend to more mainstream products.

"Some of the biggest products that we're working on right now are in development and have not yet been publicly released," said Oakes. "I'm excited about where Origin is going. Between wearables and drones, there's going to be a lot of announcements this year."

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  • Isodrac says:

    "The obvious reasons for the missing ingredient are size constraints and concerns over battery life, but that could all be set to change." Yet no comment as to the battery life concerns, only size. You could make it nano sized but constant tracking will consume battery life and there's no point tracking distance travelled if your wearable dies in the middle of a workout! Surely once battery life improves further, GPS will be an automatic feature but not until then.

  • Bill2002 says:

    1. Multi Micro Spider is not the smallest GPS module worldwide.

    2. It´s a GNSS module based on MTK 3333 chipset ....drains a lot of power.

    3. The volume of the Spider is really big and does not fit into a watch

    there are a lot reasons beside side ect. not to integrate GPS into activity tracker.....similar to color displays.

    The most important point is battery life ....following @Isodrac comment.

    The next point is size and antenna. It really makes no sense to integrate a GPS module like Origin into a smart watch or activity tracker. The GPS has to be integrated into the complete PCB design directly on chip level .... The antenna must be tuned to the environmental housing ect. ....not easy :-) Patch antennas are really not very useful in watch or tracker designs

    • Masnak says:

      1. The power consumption of Mediatek's GNSS IC is no doubt the lowest. Their IC power consumption is lower than SIRF, ST, and Ublox. However, going in to the lowest power consumption modes drastically affects the positioning accuracy, so I wouldn't recommend it for very position sensitive applications. Additionally, having the lowest power consumption on the IC level doesn't guarantee the same will be translated at the module level. The craze about making things smaller sometimes comes at the cost of reduced components. For example, the mentioned originGPS module may lack SMPS (as many of their other smaller modules do) , which would require addition of several components, and without which despite the small size, it's not the best in power consumption. Some slightly larger MediaTek based modules (with a complete set of components) would give you at least 5mA lower power consumption. 

      2. There is absolutely no reason why Fitbit should use a module. They have the money, engineering resources, and capability to do a chip-level design. I know for a fact that they are already using MediaTek chipset on several of their products. (Lookup the ABI Research for last year, if you don't believe me. Fitbit was Mediatek's big win). Secondly if for any weird reason, Fitbit did intend to use a module, they would be better off with a SIP based module design. Height is an important dimension of size as well, which is not a plus point for OriginGPS's double sided non-SMD type module design. Even in terms of length and width, an MTK IC is 4.3 x 4.3 which is still much smaller, and you have the freedom of component placement and using shared components with the rest of the system. 

      Irrespective of what IC or Module Fitbit uses, they can't use it in all of their models. It would ideally be used only in larger Fitbit devices, as you would need a bigger battery to justify the power consumption of a GPS (worst if using GPS/Glonass). Also at a smaller scale, the integration of a GPS antenna, (it's matching with the casing) and getting optimum performance is easier said than done. 

      3. "Single digit dollars" for a module, please! I understand if you are expecting millions of units, you would offer them what 6, 7, 8 dollars ? That's still a lot. They are no doubt paying less than half of that for the chipset already. In case you want to give the same advice to Garmin next time, heads-up, they are also using MediaTek IC already. 

  • brandonoakes says:

    To overcome battery life challenges, GNSS usage would need to be managed by the fitness tracker application. It is not practical, or necessary, for the GNSS module to be on all of the time. Fitness tracker brands should design an implementation that leverages the strengths of GNSSwhile utilizing the advanced sleep modes to minimizebattery life impacts. The technology is here today.

    The OriginGPS Spider line is suited for small devices like wearables because it does not contain an integrated antenna, which enables it to integrate with other non-patch antennas that are designed for particular applications.

    The Multi Micro Spider and Nano Spider from OriginGPS leverage our patented Noise Free Zone technology to isolate the GNSS receiver from ground noise present on the host PCB while producing modules that are the size of the GNSS IC. The result is superior performance in a footprint that is smaller than what can be achieved by a chip-on-board implementation.

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