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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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Smash hits the Nintendo Switch

Super Smash Bros. delivers what the fans wanted in the latest “Ultimate” instalment, writes BRYAN TURNER.

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Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, the latest addition to the popular Nintendo Smash series, has landed on the Nintendo Switch with a bang, selling 5-million copies in the first week of its release. The game has been long-anticipated since the console’s release, as many fans consider iy to be a Nintendo staple. And the wait was well worth it.

It features 74 playable fighters, 108 stages, almost 1300 Spirit characters to collect while playing, and a single-player Adventure mode that took about three days (or 28 hours) of gameplay to complete. The game offers far more gameplay than its predecessors, making it the Smash game that gives its players the best bang for their buck.

For those new to the game, the goal is to fight opponents and build up their damage score (draining their health) to knock them off the stage eventually. This makes the game seem chaotic, as many players jump around the platforms as if they were on quicksand, in order to avoid being hit by the other players.

It also services two kinds of players: the competitive and the casual.

Competitive players can be matched on the online service by skill ranking to enjoy playing with similarly high-skilled opponents. This is especially important in e-sports training for the game, and for players wanting to master combos against other human players. The casual gamer is also catered for, with eight-player chaos and button-mashing to see who comes out luckiest. This segment is also important for those wanting to learn how to play.

Training mode is also a place to go for those learning to play. It offers “CPU” players that are graded by intensity to train as a single player to learn a character’s moves, combos and general fighting style. More challenging CPU players can also be used by competitive players to train when there isn’t a Wi-Fi connection available.

Direct Play features in this game, allowing two players with two Switch consoles to play against each other over a direct connection – no Wi-Fi needed. This is especially useful to those who want to have a social gaming element on the go, similar to that of the cable connector of the Gameboy.

Click here to read Bryan Turner review of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.

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Win Funko Fortnite in Vinyl

Gadget and Gammatek have nine Funko Fortnite figurines to give away.

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A Funko Pop figurine based on a character set is indicative of reaching the heights of pop culture. It is no surprise, then, that the world’s biggest online game, Fortnite, has its own line of Funko Pop figurines. The Funkos are modeled on the characters in game, including Drift, Ragnarok, Dark Vanguard, Volar, Tracera Ops, and Sparkle Specialist.

Now, local Funko distributor Gammatek has released the Fortnite figurines in South Africa. To celebrate, Gadget and Gammatek are giving away a set of three Funko Fortnite figurines to each of three readers (9 figurines in total). To enter, first click on your favourite Funko Pop on the next page and post the Tweet that appears. Then, follow Gadget on Twitter.

You can put the tweet in your own words, but entries must have the competition’s hashtag (#FunkoFortnite) and mention @GadgetZA to be considered valid.

Click here to select the Funko Fortnite character you want to tweet.

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