Group looks to build user trust in fitness technology

SNEWS gets a sneak peak at the new Fitness Industry Technology Council, a group of industry leaders calling for increased reliability and compatibility of the digital data being output to users from fitness equipment. Will all calorie counters eventually be trusted?
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As technology increasingly works its way into more fitness equipment, a group of industry leaders is coming together to recommend a set of standards and best practices with the goal of providing a more seamless and reliable technological experience for the user.

The Fitness Industry Technology Council, or FITC, was created in late 2010 after several of its founders noticed growing variances in fitness technology – even in calorie counters, which have been around for decades.

“People need to be able to trust the technology,” said Dave Flynt (photo, right), director of user experience at Precor Inc., and a founding member of FITC. The performance metrics from machine to machine should be measurably the same, no matter the brand, he said. If not, “it can lead to mistrust within the industry” and backlash from users."

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The goal for the new council, which in October 2010 for the first time at the Club Industry Show in Chicago and again recently at the March 2011 IHRSA trade show in San Francisco, is to build predictability, reliability, consistency and trust in the increasing amount user data being output by today’s new technology-buffed machines.

“There will be nothing binding with these recommendations,” Flynt said. “But we think there’s general consensus that it would be better off for the entire industry.”

Beyond reliable data, the council is looking to recommend best practices for increased compatibility, such as in how fitness equipment will allow users to download, analyze and protect their data.

“Virtually all machines use the CSAFE protocol today,” Flynt said. “However, there can be variances. How can we adapt to make the data more universal? Is CSAFE the way to go? And if not, what is the right system?”

Agreeing on single technology protocol would improve user experience, Flynt said.

It might, for example, allow users to one day have all their workout data automatically sent to the same online fitness account of their choosing, even though they exercised on a Precor elliptical at home in the morning, and on a Life Fitness treadmill at the gym in the afternoon. If consistent, the data – no matter where it came from – could help users create reliably integrated, long-term analysis of their fitness regimen.

This could help specialty fitness retailers sell different pieces equipment, ensuring consumers that the technology is compatible with one another. Most all consumer technology goes through a natural standardization process, whether companies try or not. Think back to VHS beating out Betamax or, more recently, Blu-ray becoming the standard in digital video. But there are also examples of competing technologies surviving -- like Apple versus PC.

Flynt said the council will recommend the data standard to be compatible with professional health care systems too. This could allow users – by their own choice – to give their doctors access to workout data, which could aid medical evaluations.

Making sure all the data has effective reliable security technology, is another topic the council will explore.

Flynt said FTIC is in its early stages – the group lacks a website, and it has yet to decide how it will disseminate its recommendations. And at some point, there will be discussion on how to finance some of the group’s initiatives.

“We’re moving out of realm of just a bunch of guys, to a more serious organization,” Flynt said.

As interest grows, the group is trying to balance a variety of opinions. There are about 20 people on the council’s steering committee from all aspects of the fitness and technology industries, including Flynt; Ed Trainor, vice president of fitness services and product development, Town Sports International; Jon Zerden, chief technology officer, Athletes’ Performance; and Don Moore, Intel Corp.

Flynt said Moore has been a leading proponent from the technology industry. At the group’s public presentation during IHRSA in March, Moore said Intel sees opportunity and potential to help grow the fitness industry, but found that the technology being used lacked consistency.

Not everyone who wants to be a member of the council can, though, Flynt said. Eventually the group had to place a cap.

“We want to be inclusive, and we welcome feedback, but we want to make progress,” Flynt said. It’s the classic problem of too many chefs in the kitchen, he said. “It’s even been hard to make progress with the small group we have.”

Moving forward from the meeting at IHRSA, the group plans soon to present its ideas on standardizing the "calories burned" performance metric. Members are also debating an independent certification group that could help implement the process.

The goal, Flynt said, is to have that decided within the next four to six months.

-- David Clucas

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