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Fitbit takes wearables to their next step

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The Fitbit story is a fascinating one, and is about to enter its next phase as wearables graduate from mere utility to decoration, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

It was a fashion show with a difference. Against the backdrop of the annual IFA consumer technology expo in Berlin, Fitbit chose a counterculture venue called Haubentaucher to show how its latest devices could be worn as both accessories and fitness devices.

Male and female models dressed in modest white outfits paraded along a temporary ramp built over a swimming pool, almost implying that the devices would keep working if they fell into the water.

The gadgets themselves marked the next step in the evolution of the activity wrist band: the new Fitbit Flex 2 featured a removable tracker that could be slotted into a bracelet for the wrist or a pendant for the neck. The potential was clear: the tracking component could be fitted into any clothing accessory or other wearable device. The bracelet and pendant were just the beginning.

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Fitbit also launched the Charge 2, the latest version of its market-leading activity band, with a substantially larger screen that allows display of text messages. It also features automatic sports tracking and “guided breathing”, to help users regulate breathing and enhance relaxation.

James Park, CEO and co-founder of Fitbit, added a buzz to the event by introducing the new devices. He practically invented an industry by spotting what was missing in other inventions. When the Nintendo Wii was launched almost exactly a decade ago, he said, he had been caught up in the hype.

“I was very excited about the Nintendo Wii. I was really amazed at the way it made gaming something fun, active and positive. Families were getting off the couch. We thought, how do we capture that magic and put it in portable form?”

He and co-founder Eric Friedman had less difficulty coming up with a solution than they had naming it, he admits.

“My co-founder and I were going through hundreds of names and variations. One day I was just napping and I woke up and thought, ‘Hey, Fitbit!’ It just came out of the blue. Unfortunately, domain names were hard to come by. We reached out to the owner, who happened to live in Russia. We had an email dialogue, asked how much do you want, and he said $10 000. I said, how about $2000? He immediately replied and said okay, and we paid him via PayPal.”

Those were the easy bits. The next step, getting the product to market, tends to be the one where even the coolest products fail. They chose the TechCrunch50 start-up conference to showcase their device. The online publication that hosted the event, TechCrunch, described what was then a clip-on device in quaint terms: “a wireless 3D pedometer and diet monitoring system that will cost $99 and connect online to upload activity levels and food intake.”

“I don’t think success was a given in the early days,” Park acknowledges. “When we announced our first product at TechCrunch 50, Eric asked how many pre-orders I expected. He said five. I said, that’s pessimistic, I expect 50. By the end of the day we had a couple of thousand pre-orders.”

It was exhilarating, but it was the kind of success that can land a start-up in deep trouble.

“We’d only raised $2-million in capital, which was pretty small for a hardware start-up. It forced us to be pretty efficient and mean. We were always cognisant of the fact that we couldn’t depend on capital markets for money, and one of our primary goals was to get profits going.”

Eight years later, Fitbit presides over the two best-selling products in history in the category, the Flex and the Charge. Its attempt at a smartwatch, the Blaze, has been less successful, as it is perceived to compete directly with the far more popular Apple Watch. As far as Park is concerned, however, it is about offering more options.

“We wanted to make the successors to our original products more motivating, so we added health metrics, and made the devices more stylish. People are looking for more style from this category. The devices are also getting smarter, as we gradually introduce more connectivity functionality.

“For example, your cardio fitness level tells you how well your body is using oxygen. To get access to this technology before, you had to be a performance athlete and go to a lab and spend a lot of money. We’ve encapsulated this in a small digital format on your wrist.”

Park says Fitbit spends the largest proportion of its research and development budget on sensors and algorithms, and it will continue to develop new sensors that will give people better metrics about their health.

Park’s long-term ambition for Fitbit is not as immodest as it may seem, considering what it has already achieved: “It will be incredible if Fitbit is considered an integral part of people’s health journey, in the same way as people wouldn’t think of buying a car without a seatbelt today.”

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee

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As selfie cameras rise, so must selfie etiquette

Selfies were once a sign of narcissism or self-obsession. Now they are the new normal, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

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You can blame Oxford Dictionaries for making the “selfie” respectable. After all, being named Word of the Year, as it was in 2013, does tend to soften some of the self-consciousness in this most self-conscious of actions.

Once seen as a symbol of narcissism and self-obsession, it is now the new normal, to the extent that most smartphones are sold on the basis of the front camera. Or, as that feature is now almost universally named by manufacturers, the “selfie camera”.

I was one of the hold-outs, having a near-allergy to the selfie. I still resist, but succumb more often than I would like. The reason for continued resistance is that it remains a big leap from the word becoming respectable to the action itself shedding its narcissistic image. 

For most, it’s already happened, and for that you can blame Ellen DeGeneres. She  choreographed the most famous group selfie yet at the 2014 Oscars, when she roped a bunch of actors into a group selfie, using the then-new Samsung Galaxy S5 smartphone. Her tweet of the photo became what was then the most retweeted posting ever on Twitter, and was estimated to have been worth a million dollars in marketing value to Samsung.

Ironically, it was Samsung’s up-and-coming challenger, Huawei, that came up with a new word for this type of selfie: the “groufie”. Thanks to an 8 Megapixel front camera on the new Huawei Ascend P7 camera that year which took the highest quality selfies – and groufies – possible on a smartphone at the time.

It didn’t end there, and selfies and groufies have morphed into variations like selfscapes (selfie in a landscape), skyfies (selfies from the air, using remote controlled devices) and jerkies (selfies to make an idiot out of yourself). I invented all of those on the fly, so it’s easy to imagine a new word emerging for every type of selfie.

Continue reading about selfie improvements through the years.

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Mickey’s 90th for SA

Disney Africa announced the local launch of the Mickey the True Original campaign, joining the global festivities honouring 9 decades of Mickey Mouse, his heritage, personality and status as a pop-culture icon.

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As 18 November 2018 marks 90 years since his first appearance in Steamboat Willie in November 1928, a series of world-wide celebrations will be taking place this year and South Africa is no different.

The campaign will come to life with engaging content and events that embrace Mickey’s impact on the past, present and future. The local festivities kick off in earnest this month, leading up to Mickey’s 90th anniversary on 18 November 2018 and beyond:

  • An exclusive local design project where ten highly talented South African artists will apply their own inspiration and artistic interpretation on 6-foot Mickey Mouse statues.
  • Once revealed to the public, the statues will form part of the Mickey the True Original South African Exhibition, inspired by Mickey’s status as a ‘true original’ and his global impact on popular culture. The exhibition will travel to 3 cities and delight fans and families alike as they journey with Mickey over the years. Featuring 4 sections highlighting Mickey’s innovation, his evolution, influence on fashion and also pop culture, the exhibition is in collaboration with Samsung and Edgars, and will visit:

o   Sandton City, Centre Court: 28 September – 14 October

o   Gateway Theatre of Shopping, Expo Explore Court: 19 October – 11 November

o   Canal Walk Shopping Centre. Centre Court: 16 November – 26 November

  • Samsung continues their collaboration with Disney as they honour Mickey’s 90th anniversary nationally at all Samsung and Edgars Stores. Entitled Unlocking the Imagination, fans are encouraged to visit these stores, take a selfie with a giant Mickey plush toy using their Samsung Galaxy Note9 and stand a chance to win not only a giant Mickey plush, but also an international family trip. Visit www.Samsung.com for more information
  • Mickey’s 90th Spectacular, a two-hour prime-time special, will be screened on M-Net 101 later this year. The elegant affair will feature star-studded musical performances, moving tributes and never-before-seen short films. Superstars from music, film and television will join the birthday fun for the internationally beloved character.
  • In addition, look out for special programming on Mickey’s birthday (18 November) across Disney Channel (DStv, Channel 303), Disney XD (DStv, Channel 304) and Disney Junior (DStv, Channel 309).
  • In retailers, Edgars will be stocking a complete collection of trendy fashion, accessories and footwear for the whole family, inspired entirely by Mickey Mouse.
  • Mickey will be the central theme of an in-store campaign nationwide this November and December, with brand new products, apparel, toys, as well as titles from Disney Publishing Worldwide, including books, arts & crafts and comics
  • Discovery Vitality and Disney are celebrating healthy, happy families this festive season by offering helpful and exciting tips and tricks on how to eat nutritious, yet delicious, foods, all inspired by Mickey. There’s also a trip to Disneyland Paris up for grabs. Log on to www.discovery.co.za/vitality for information.
  • And much more – check the press for updates

“Binding generations together more than any other animated character, Mickey Mouse is the “True Original” who reminds people of all ages of the benefits of laughter, optimism and hope,” says Christine Service, Senior Vice President and Country Manager of The Walt Disney Company Africa. “With his universal appeal and ability to emotionally connect with generations all over the world, no other character quite occupies a similar space in the hearts and minds of a global fan base and we are thrilled to be sharing these local festivities.”

Mickey’s birthday is celebrated in honour of the release of his first theatrical film, Steamboat Willie, on 18th November 1928, at the Colony Theatre in New York City. Since then, he has starred in more than 100 cartoons and can currently be seen on Disney Channel (DStv, Channel 303) in the Mickey Mouse cartoon series and on Disney Junior (DStv, Channel 309) in Mickey and the Roadster Racers.

South African fans are encouraged to share their Mickey Mouse moments on social media using the hashtag#Mickey90Africa.

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