We're two months into this series now. If you're not all caught up, I've been exploring how wearable tech can help you in the gym, and the last week has been far the busiest. Life busy not workout busy, that is. With the Wareable Tech Awards 2017 last Thursday, Wareable HQ has been busy prepping, testing and stressing. So as a result, it's been a fairly lax week in the gym.
I only managed to get a couple of sessions in before our big night on Thursday, with a groin injury sustained from five-a-side football also making it difficult to get back on track at the weekend. So while there's admittedly little to report with regard to progress with wearable tech, that doesn't mean I can't take stock of the space generally. In my last entry, after weeks of frustration with the Apple Watch, Fitbit Ionic and Garmin Vivosport, I talked about what my ideal gym wearable would look like and how it would function.
And now, with my focus turning towards the dedicated gym wearables, I decided to chat to Peter Li, co-founder and CEO of Atlas Wearables. His company first gained attention in 2014 after an Indiegogo campaign for the Atlas Wristband, a device that's able to automatically detect exercises and repetitions as well as learn your form, raised more than $600,000. Since then, Atlas has also released Shape, which is aimed at beginner users, and continues to work on support for 'power' users with its Wristband line.
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But why is it being left to startups and smaller companies to lead the way, instead of strength training solutions coming from the likes of Apple and Fitbit?
"I think there's a couple of angles to take on that," Li tells me. "Running, for example, is one of the easiest to develop for and one of the most accessible for people to get into. You pretty much just need your shoes, and it's questionable if you even really need those.
"Whereas with strength training, you almost always need some kind of gym – whether it's one dedicated to classes, a boxing gym, whatever it may be. Not only is the accessibility more of a question, but the type of physical motion needed also makes things harder. It's so much broader, and from that perspective there's also a level of difficulty involved in trying to track so many different types of exercise."
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It's a different story for Atlas, whose Wristband initially launched with 50 exercises before branching out to 100 within a year of launch. Around 250 options are now on the Atlas for users to choose from, with "thousands more" variations currently in the works.
"We're not yet at that critical point where everything works perfectly, like we are with something like GPS. If you have a running watch, you can just press a button and it's pretty much taken care of for you. It's not that simple in the strength space," Li continued.
"I hope eventually it will be easier. Some of the larger companies are beginning to dabble in a broad variety of exercise – you know, past walking, running and jogging and into things like swimming. But there's a lot more progress being made by other companies, as well as ourselves."
That means the bar for the bigger players to try and meet is ever-increasing, but I was also interested to find out just what separates the likes of Garmin's rep counting and exercise detection from the Atlas system. Li described how the little things, such as a user's range of motion, need to be taken into consideration in order to track consistently and accurately.
"In the library, we currently have a dozen different bicep curl variations. When people start with dumbbells they might not have a big range of motion, so their wrist might not be able to turn and face them, so we have different start positions and end position, mid-cycle rotations – some people stay pronated, some people stay with a hammer grip," he said.
When Li touches upon the intricacies that go into developing software for strength training, it's easy to understand why it's an area the bigger companies have yet to truly delve into.
We're only really just seeing waterproofing become a standard feature across the board for smartwatches, meaning swimmers no longer have to rely on dedicated options to track their exercise. Hell, some watches have only just began to include in-built GPS, if we're really getting into slow-coming features.
So is true strength training the next software iteration in line for an examination? I'm personally not holding my breath – especially after gaining a greater understanding of just how far away they are from current dedicated devices. Even Apple's exciting GymKit platform is focusing on cardio equipment in its first iteration. But there's no doubt that strength training will gain more traction over the coming years as more competitors enter the field. For now, I'm going to finally get around to testing the Atlas Wristband out and see how it compares. Check back next week to see how I get on.
Conor's strength training diary
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