Gear Fisher is the Chief Operating Officer of Peaksware, a company that has been evolving since the late 1990s to provide coaches and athletes innovative tools to monitor, plan and analyze athletic performance. Gear is responsible for managing all business processes and product development at Peaksware. He is also an recreational cyclist, who in is prime landed top ten honors in various cycling events while competing at the category II level.
Here are my 5 questions with Gear and his answers:
1) You have been building exercise technology for more than a decade now. In that time what do you think the biggest game changer has been regarding technology and fitness – an innovation that when observed for the first time made you realize the environment has now permanently changed?
The acceptance and understanding of downloadable training devices like heart-rate monitors, GPS, and power meters has changed how people train and their expectation of what to expect when buying these sorts of devices. From a high level, we’re seeing the formation of a “consumer health data warehouse” that previously only doctors, hospitals and maybe professional athletes might have had access to. We are seeing the landscape for an interconnected health management system affordable by the masses beginning to take shape. This will truly be the major game changer in the next 10 years as the world struggles with the changing health care system.
I first wrote a web-based .csv file reader for the PowerTap in 2001. At the time, it was pretty cutting edge, maybe too cutting edge. At one point, I was on the phone with Saris showing them what I had done and how you could view the data files on the web, they basically said, “nice, but nobody downloads, so, we’re not sure why you spent time doing it.” At the time, they had just been acquired and were rebuilding their newly acquired PowerTap technology from its original creator, so I think they might have underestimated the importance of post exercise data analysis and athletic performance metrics.
There were a few other companies with downloadable devices at the time (Polar, CompuTrainer, SRM, to name a few) but there are now so many excellent companies bringing downloadable training devices to market, consumers have come to expect the feature on any new device over $200. We’ve moved beyond a “geeky” feature into an expected and sought-after feature. Thanks to Garmin, Timex, Suunto, Saris, Polar, and SRM many others are preparing more downloadable devices. To bring this topic fully up to date, I have to mention the work that Dynastream has done to standardize the ANT+ protocol for enabling wireless sensors and devices in the “personal area network” space too. This has made the sensors easy to install and manage, as well as allowed consumers to easily get the data from their device to the cloud or to their personal computer.
2) A big movement in health and fitness innovation has been the ability to amass and store user metrics quickly and easily. For example, regarding health, the consumer start-up company ZEO was able to accumulate the largest known sleep study database in less than a year. This has given ZEO the ability to identify key factors that affect people’s sleep, which up until this point had been unavailable (even to the academic community). In theory, the ability to amass and identify trends from performance metrics should be beneficial in fitness applications in a similar way. Do you see this evolution in the ease and ability to store performance data enabling fitness professions to expand the breadth of their ability to foster athletic improvement? And, if yes, then how?
Without a doubt, yes. As I mentioned above, we’re seeing a changing health care system, one that is moving from a 3rd party managed system, to a self-managed, self-informed system. We look at what we’re doing at Peaksware as the top of the health care pyramid. Our customers have taken control of their health, are self motivated and looking for fitness and performance. This will trickle down to the masses as health insurance, doctors and hospitals begin to adopt a more wide-ranging care system beyond the walls of the doctor’s office and hospital. Let the people manage the data collection, provide easy access to it by professionals, then make decisions based on data and consultation with experts. Right now, we are performing this feedback loop in the performance realm, but it makes sense to translate this to general health as well. We often refer to it as the “monitor, analyze, and plan” cycle.
The data we’re collecting is going to inform the decisions and algorithms of tomorrow’s innovation. Power meters are a great example. Before power meters, the training “dose” was pretty much limited to duration and distance. Now, we have new metrics like the Training Stress Score that provide concise feedback and performance prediction, born out of data collected by people using power meters. Of course, we believe in giving the tools and technology to the people, and our software lets you “visualize your fitness and performance” and enables our customers to monitor their own data. This gives every individual the user interface for their own physiology so they can investigate and discover their own correlations and metrics by analyzing their data through TrainingPeaks.
Who knows, someday we may find a correlation to threshold power/heart rate and heart disease. I’m certain there are amazing discoveries just waiting to be found in the data.
3) Biofeedback capturing is a key element in the ability to provide practical output to users regarding exercise. Are there any innovations you see on the horizon that will accelerate this ability, or alternatively, you have a desire to see? For example, GPS units are getting smaller, heart rate monitors better, bike computers more savvy, and we can tell body fat through electrical impedance… what’s next?
I think there is a long way yet to go with data collection. The easier and faster we can get data to the cloud, the better, faster, more intelligent we can become with regard to making decisions on our training or on our general health. Lots of people recognize this and we’re seeing some great innovation in this area. I would love to see more integration with Wi-Fi and cell networks to enable easier data transfer from device to the cloud. The Withings Wifi Body Scale is the first Wi-Fi device I’ve seen that really works. You stand on the scale, it sends your weight and body composition data directly to the cloud instantly. Nothing to write down, no “work” to save and store, it just gets saved right in your TrainingPeaks account. I want to finish a bike ride, roll into my garage, have the bike computer recognize my wi-fi network and beam the ride’s data to my TrainingPeaks account. Garmin and Dynastream have done some great work in this area too.
There are several iPhone and Android phone apps that do this sort of data collection, even in real-time, but it has got a ways to go for enabling more data sensors like heart-rate and power. I’ve seen several ANT+ dongles like Digifit that plug into an iPhone and enable ANT+ sensors to beam their data to your phone during a workout. You then can send the data to your personal TrainingPeaks account, but it’s just now coming to market. The phone essentially brings a super-computer along with you on your ride, run, hike or walk. It’s a great point for doing data capture and transmission. There are some problems and challenges with it, but we will see incredible innovation in this space soon.
I’m particularly excited to see these technologies move indoors as well. As odd as it sounds, we’ve captured more data out on the trails and roads than we have in health clubs and spinning rooms. There is so much potential for data collection within the walls of the health club, and the opportunity to further push the technology that has already been invented and adopted by athletes down to general consumers just trying to lose weight and maintain some healthy habits while in the gym.
I’ve also seen new athletic performance metrics being collected. Respiratory rate, body position, skin temperature, real-time VO2, water consumption… So many new sensors and things we can manage. My partner, and CEO, Donavon Guyot half-seriously joked 7 years ago about under-skin sensors that collect data. This year, Allan Lim had Lance Armstrong swallowing “pills” that measure core temperature during exercise. We simply don’t know how some of these data points affect performance, because we haven’t been able to collect the data in real-time during exercise outside of a lab. We’re getting there now. And that’s a critical component, outside the lab, under pressure of a race, in the heat and cold, while raining and at altitude. So many environmental factors go into performance, training and fitness.
4) How do you foresee fitness software progressing? Will it become more dynamic and adaptive? Currently, most online products sell static programs that promote authorship (and commerce) from fitness experts (i.e. training zones are established but then set for the duration of the program). However, this approach somewhat limits the potential of software to tailor itself to an individual’s specific adaptations over time. Do you think endurance software will advance to the point that programs literally optimize daily workouts based on biofeedback from the prior day/week?
Without a doubt, software will be able to do this, it’s already started. Remember that weather forecasting model I mentioned earlier? We need a physiology model to make optimized workouts and changes based on biofeedback. Several companies have, or have tried to build these tools, but I have yet to see a comprehensive system. It’s an enormous task to make it affordable and most of all, to make it actually work. As soon as a computer-generated system gets it wrong, you lose trust in it. It comes back to the data collection and analysis. We need a LOT more data to make this sort of model truly work. But, we’re getting there. The VirtualCoach within TrainingPeaks.com is based on Joe Friel’s “TrainingBible” methodology and was an early version of this sort of system. It’s a tool that embodies much of Joe’s periodization ideas into a down-to-earth, go workout today and do “xyz” system. However, even today, after many updates and tweaks, it continues to only serve a certain population, and it’s not comprehensive, but it’s very effective for that narrow band of user.
5) Lastly, where do you think the balance between a platform’s utility and ability to be user friendly lie? Dealing with the unfortunate reality that in the world of fitness that positive outcomes are for the most part reliant on user compliance, is it sometimes necessary to compromise sophistication for usability?
This is a fascinating topic for me. I live this balance every day and make decisions constantly that go one way or the other. Ultimately, and I’ve said this for years, it comes down to ‘reason for use’. It’s a term I’ve thrown around for a decade, and I believe it’s the ultimate driver of a user’s decision to buy or use a product. If the product provides enough reason for use, whether it be because a friend suggested it, a doctor told them to do it, or it provides a key feature or has a function that is not found elsewhere, it’s the ultimate decision maker. On top of reason for use though, comes ease of use. On top of ease of use, comes the age old cliche “form follows function”. So, if it does something cool, is intuitive and looks good, you’ve got the magic three ingredients… except there’s one more issue: everyone has a different opinion on what’s easy, pretty and useful. That’s both the frustration and the fun. We build stuff that we use, based on feedback from others and incorporate some very forward thinking into the recipe. The end result is our vision of an app. To be clear, I will say that again: we don’t think of ourselves as having a weblisite, we have an appcation.
Every software system that’s developed follows the same path: build it, start adding to it, eventually re-build it, add more stuff to it and repeat. We just went through this cycle ourselves. We chose to scrap 7 years of code and rebuilt our entire web application from the ground up much to the disdain of many users that were infuriated we’d do such a thing. Many people exclaimed that we’d “wake up” when our horrible decision hit us in the pocketbook. The end result: sales have doubled and we’re reaching new markets that would have never considered us before, largely because of the elegance and simplicity of the new interface. Some old customers wanted to strangle us, but over time, they’ve come to understand the new systems and how to get things done, and it’s been a big hit. New users have no “baggage” and we’re seeing that they get up to speed much faster with the revised tools.
As far as usability, if you can get the most critical things communicated to your user quickly, you’ve done a good job. From there, they can dig in to the deeper, more complicated features. The people that dig in are ultimately your best customers, and they quickly move past ease of use and just want features. Speed is the #1 feature, from there, it depends on what you identify as important for your audience. Carefully managed and supported features are the foundation to our approach.
Ultimately, deciding form over function depends largely on what you’re trying to accomplish, it depends more on your business model, target audience, corporate goals and direction. For instance, Nike+ is a huge hit, but they focus on a single sport: running. It’s a drastic simplification that they can afford to do. They also pour millions of dollars into it in order to engage customers with their brand, instead of charging a fee to buy it. That’s a fine business model if you like making people pay for shoes but not software. Selling software is tough, and constantly evolving, it’s hard to get people to pull out their wallets and actually make them pay for what you’ve produced. A couple years ago, we were told by many that we couldn’t charge for software and that we’d need to pay for it through advertising. No thanks, not the business we’re interested in. Same thing in 2000 when we started, it was only about eyeballs. Instead, we charged for our product from day 1. We focus on providing value to our customers, and we’re not afraid to make people pay for it. If we do a good job, we believe we’ll be rewarded by paying customers, and so far, that’s worked out very well for us.