SciTechTalk: Tracking devices to go toe-to-toe with smartwatches

By JIM ALGAR, United Press International  |  Oct. 13, 2013 at 6:31 AM
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Tech watchers with their gazes fixed on the wrists of gadget aficionados to watch the developing battle between Apple, Samsung and others to offer wearable "smartwatch" computers may have ignored another growing niche of wearable tech -- fitness devices.

Last year something on the order of 30 million wearable devices meant to monitor and track health and fitness were sold to people wanting to stay fit while staying mobile.

There are devices to monitor and count steps as the user walks or runs, devices to track heartbeat during exercise, devices to tot up total daily physical activity, devices to count calories and even devices to collect data on sleep patterns.

Many can be paired with a Web account or a mobile phone app for fitness enthusiasts wanting to be connected all the time.

Many come in bracelet form to be worn like a wrist watch, or are equipped with clips to attach to a belt; some are meant to be worn on a strap around the chest, while others attach to an elastic band to fit around the arm -- so users can have an iPod for music on one arm and monitor a treadmill session from the other.

Base level monitors with a few tracking capabilities can go for $50, but a model with every conceivable bell and whistle can easily set one back $250.

But there could be trouble for such devices on the horizon, the expected onslaught of smartwatches, intended mostly as wearable computers/mobile phone adjuncts, could cut into the fitness monitor market.

Since, like tablets and smartphones, smartwatches can run an almost limitless number of apps, it's not surprising that app developers have turned their attention to possible fitness aids.

Samsung's Galaxy Gear watch, although more expensive than any single-purpose fitness monitor at a $299 retail price, has among its available apps a step-counter that uses to watch's accelerometer to create a pedometer, long the specialty of the dedicated fitness device.

It doesn't stop there, Samsung has turned to fitness-tracking software company Azumio for a special version of its Argus fitness app with step, heart rate, and calorie counting that is being pre-loaded on Galaxy Gear devices.

Users can even use the Galaxy Gear watch to take photos of the food they eat -- no smartphone or digital camera required.

Most current wearable fitness devices are made by smaller companies with neither the manufacturing nor marketing clout of tech giants like Apple and Samsung, and if smartwatches with accompanying fitness capabilities take off, it could spell hard times for those smaller firms. They wouldn't be the first to be steamrolled by the 500-pound gorillas of the tech world; any number of companies in several areas of the tech arena could offer sad tales.

It's been predicted Samsung alone will ship 1.2 million smartwatches worldwide this year and 7 million in 2014, and if users discover that fitness tracking has been efficiently folded into the devices, the humble pedometer and all its high-tech dedicated fitness tracking cousins could lose ground on the marketing treadmill.

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