Home With HealthBox, Under Armour Wants To Wire Athletes Up From Head To Toe

With HealthBox, Under Armour Wants To Wire Athletes Up From Head To Toe

Under Armour, having spent hundreds of millions of dollars bulking up on software startups, is now showing its 2016 shape-up resolution: to turn itself from a fitness-apparel maker into a tech company.

“This is the year that this gets woven together,” Robin Thurston, Under Armour’s senior vice president of Connected Fitness, told me when we met last month in San Francisco.

The most visible example of this new tapestry is the UA HealthBox, a package of connected digital-fitness devices that Under Armour and HTC are unveiling at CES in Las Vegas Tuesday morning.

At the same time, Under Armour’s Connected Fitness division—the new home of MapMyFitness, MyFitnessPal, and Endomondo—is releasing a new version of UA Record, its fitness-dashboard app.

The UA Scale, sadly, does not guarantee you will look like this.

All Under Armour, All The Time?

If you spend enough time in the byways of Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram, and follow the right fitness-minded accounts, you’ll encounter the hashtag #AllUnderArmourEverything. Some use it to dismiss overly enthusiastic fans of the brand, while others celebrate their shoes-to-headband embrace of Under Armour.

While Under Armour hasn’t officially embraced the hashtag, it neatly sums up the company’s new digital strategy. Under Armour wants you to connect with its hardware and software from head to toe. Start with the new UA/JBL Bluetooth headphones; add a UA HR Strap around your chest; strap a UA Band on your wrist; run UA Record on the smartphone in your pocket; and wear Under Armour Speedform Gemini 2 shoes with a UA sensor inside to track your runs. Ideally, you’d only take this gear off to step on a UA Scale that logs your weight wirelessly.

Under Armour gave me a HealthBox test set to evaluate over the holidays. While I’ll be writing a full review based on the final software release in a couple of weeks, I can share some general impressions.

In its race to stake out turf all over your body, Under Armour seems more concerned with executing a land grab than fully developing the terrain.  I can’t fault the company for pursuing this strategy: To do otherwise means ceding the wrist to Fitbit and Apple, the chest to the likes of Wahoo and Pear Sports, and the feet to Nike. Under Armour has a powerful arsenal of fitness apps, but they ultimately depend on devices to feed them data.

With this land grab comes some overlap. I tested the SpeedForm Gemini 2 shoes, for example, which track your runs through a built-in sensor, allowing you to leave your phone behind if that’s what you prefer. Yet you can also track runs phonelessly with the UA Band. Or you can just take your phone and use its built-in motion sensor. Things get really confusing if you try using everything at once.

The Band has a built-in optical heart-rate sensor. Wisely, Under Armour doesn’t rely on this sensor for detailed heart-rate data in workouts. Optical sensors—even the latest generation of them—just aren’t up to snuff, chewing up a lot of battery life without delivering the fine-grained data athletes need. The UA Band only uses the optical sensor to detect your resting heart rate when you wake, an important health indicator. For in-workout heart-rate data, the UA HR Strap kicks into gear.

Intriguingly, the UA HR Strap includes a built-in motion sensor. It’s not clear how that will be used over the long term, but an early Under Armour device, the Armour39, supplemented heart-rate data with a motion sensor to derive better measurements of how hard an athlete is exercising. Under Armour’s Record app has picked up Armour39’s proprietary “Willpower” measure of workout intensity.

Yet for ordinary gymgoers—an aspirational demographic Under Armour wants to target—figuring out which heart-rate device is good for what may be a burden. Likewise, the UA HR Strap is flexible, functioning either as a generic Bluetooth heart-rate device or a specialized UA device that can talk to the UA Band (and, presumably, make use of that motion sensor). So you have to decide if you want to use the strap with the UA Record app on your phone or with the UA Band. The strap-band combination is most useful, again, if you’re leaving your phone behind. Otherwise, the Record app does a nice job of tracking heart rate.

Just to confuse things, Under Armour is planning to release a new version of its Bluetooth headphones which are capable of tracking heart rate through the ear.

My favorite device may well be the UA Scale, which has a bright display and effective syncing with UA Record. (If only there were a way to ensure that the numbers it displays steadily decreased, other than rigorously tracking my eating on MyFitnessPal.)

HealthBox will go on sale on January 22 for $400, with preorders starting Tuesday. The UA Band, scale, and headphones will be available for $180 each, while the UA Strap will cost $80. (The headphones and the $150 Gemini SpeedForm shoes aren’t part of the HealthBox package.)

HealthBox will also include a year of premium subscriptions to MapMyFitness and MyFitnessPal, which normally cost $29.99 and $49.99 respectively. Total it up, and Under Armour is giving you a healthy 23 percent discount on the individual pieces for going #AllUnderArmourEverything.

An Athletic Competition

Under Armour’s first attempt at an athlete-friendly fitness tracker, Armour39, was long on interesting ideas and short on bug-free execution. Coming before the MapMyFitness and MyFitnessPal deals, it was hobbled by Under Armour’s lack of software expertise.

Will a smartened-up Under Armour, with legions of programmers protecting its digital house, be able to grab a slice of the fitness-tracker market with its all-in-one approach?

Unlike Fitbit, it’s not offering low-end step-tracking devices to bulk up its market share. And unlike Apple, it’s not trying to provide a multifunctional computing device on the wrist which happens to have some fitness features.

Instead, Under Armour is pursuing a pretty deliberate strategy of targeting what it calls “athletes”—a catch-all term for people who are more serious about fitness, but can cover a pretty broad spectrum of ability. $400 is probably not that much money compared to what these folks spend on gym memberships and those #AllUnderArmourEverything outfits.

Interestingly, Nike, which is Under Armour’s nemesis in sporting stadiums and retail shelves, isn’t even taking the field. Its apps, mostly outsourced to third-party developers, seem poorly integrated, especially compared to Under Armour’s offerings, which share common logins and data platforms. And Nike famously gave up on hardware when it abandoned its FuelBand.

Interestingly, Adidas—a company which has scrapped with Under Armour in courtrooms over digital patents—may be the most potent threat now, with its acquisition of Runtastic last year. While Runtastic and Adidas haven’t unveiled the kind of integrated hardware Under Armour now has, the company has a good base in its Runtastic Orbit, a simpler but cheaper fitness tracker which can display heart-rate data from a connected strap like the UA Band does. Runtastic plans to release a version of the Orbit with optical heart-rate measurement later this year, CEO Florian Gschwandtner told me a couple of months ago.

This competition, in other words, is far from finished. Fitbit could go upmarket and improve the athlete-friendly features of its phone. Dave Grijalva, the CTO of Fitbit’s recently acquired FitStar subsidiary, has been thinking about heart-rate features for years, and that company’s library of training videos and relationships with athletes could make it a contender on Under Armour’s gym-rat turf. Adidas and Runtastic have yet to show their hand. And Nike might get its act together.

So Under Armour may have just placed a stake in the ground with HealthBox. I think it’s fair to complain that there’s some overlap and potential for confusion with its wide array of offerings. And I have complaints  I like its overall strategy and ambition.

The best thing is the prospect of Under Armour’s Connected Fitness team, which now has hundreds of engineers working on its products, continuously upgrading the hardware. I was intrigued to see the systems they set up to deliver firmware upgrades to all of its devices—even the UA HR Strap. Just as we expect the software on our laptops and smartphones to improve over time, we’re now going to want the same from our connected fitness devices.

The digital-fitness game is no longer about being about a great hardware designer or an ace software programmer. You have to be an all-around utility player. And Under Armour, with HealthBox, shows every sign of being a contender in both sports.

Photos courtesy of Under Armour

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