Trying Out the Nike+ FuelBand

I am using the Nike+ FuelBand this week as part of an activity for a conference I’m attending. I like gadgets and already wear a pedometer, and I’ve been curious about the FuelBand. It’s been an interesting few days.

Nike hints that the FuelBand is something special, with lots of different ways to evaluate your activity, but it’s mainly a wrist-based pedometer. As a consequence, it can’t always capture your steps and records “steps” for rhythmic arm motions. (I have worn it overnight a few times and “learned” that I took a couple of dozen steps in my sleep, which I definitely didn’t, although I do move around a bit.)

Nonwalking activities are represented as “steps,” generally yielding low activity estimates. Rowing on a machine or riding a bicycle shows strokes as steps, and it acknowledges stroke rate – the bike is more ‘caloriffic’ than the rowing machine – but can’t understand resistance. (Nike claims its logic is more than just pedometry, but I have kept wearing a pedometer, too, and it looks like pedometry to me.) Of course, those activities are better measured with other devices, but it puts the active user in the position of having having irrelevant information when thinking about their overall activity for the day.

The display is simple and narrow, with a few measures (steps, calories, and “Nike Fuel” – a weighted calculation that seeks to provide a common measurement unit across individuals and activities). It also serves as a watch. The display includes a line of tiny dots that light up as you progress toward your goal for the day, with the first dots in red, the middle dots in yellow, and the final dots in green. The device itself is simple and attractive, and sits unobtrusively on the wrist. I placed it on my ankle for bike rides. It is too small to clasp over my ankle but the shape is sufficient to hold it there as a cuff-style bracelet.

FuelBand offers no way to designate a start and stop for a specific activity, has no stopwatch, and displays only a few built-in measures. The web interface and iPhone app show an hour-by-hour breakout of your activity level on a graph, but they don’t show start and stop times or splits. In general, though, the app and web interface are pleasant to use, with stylish visualizations and cute reward sequences for meeting goals. You can also sync to your iOS device anytime throughout the day, which makes the device more engaging and interactive than a simple pedometer.

On setup, FuelBand invites you to set a daily goal, but changing it only takes effect the following day. I first selected 3000 points as a goal (defined by the system as an active day). I swamped that on a normal work day and selected 5000 points the next day, exceeding that as well, but when I decided to have a slow day, I was out of luck; I’m now wearing a device that is chiding me with little red dots for being lazy all day just because I didn’t plan my laziness last night. This merely annoyed me as a motivated, athletic person, but I wonder if it would make a less combative person take the FuelBand off and put it in a drawer.* Battery life is rated at about 4 days, but I find the battery is down to around 20% at the end of single day. In short, I’m getting lots of cues that this device was definitely not designed with me in mind.

I’m glad I had the opportunity to test the FuelBand. Nike has promoted it heavily with its Nike aesthetic, which is much higher energy than the apparent target audience, and the promotion definitely activated my covet drive. FuelBand is a good choice for someone who is already using iOS (the only OS the app supports for now), wants a set-it-and-forget-it tracking device, and just wants some reinforcement for moving around more during the day. It’s particularly bad news for the Jawbone UP, which suffers from much less name recognition combined with a recent episode of major manufacturing trouble. If you’re an active athlete, you’re better off sticking with your sport-specific devices. But it’s a nice gateway device for people looking to get more movement into their daily lives, just as walking is a good gateway activity.

*There are lot of good reasons to decide on the fly to have a slow day – illness, injury, or a dramatic change in plan, for example. The user can add a brief note and choose a mood icon in the web interface, but the purpose of the red dots on the progress display is to remind you to shake a leg. If the developers are already counting on the user to be susceptible to being nudged, they can expect the user to feel criticized, too – and not best pleased if it feels unfair.

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