Fifth-graders at Patrick Henry Elementary in Arlington, Va., know the drill: As soon as they get to phys-ed, they walk around the gym, gradually speeding up to an all-out run. And in between laps, they take turns at a computer to swipe their Sqords.
The curiously named devices are activity monitors on bright orange wristbands that track just how much each child has been moving. Every dash for the school bus and jumping jack on the playground translates into points, giving kids an extra incentive to play -- and a preview of technology that's likely to be ubiquitous by the time they graduate from high school.
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Sqords aren't pedometers, which merely measure steps. They're accelerometers, the same kind of gizmo behind the Nike + FuelBand, Jawbone Up, Fitbit and other products marketed to adults as a way to keep tabs on overall physical activity. Although the grown-up gadgets tend to emphasize data, especially the number of calories burned, Sqord is focused on winning medals, competing with pals and sending positive messages through your "PowerMe" avatar.
"We're big into getting kids moving and keeping them moving through their whole lives," says P.E. teacher Mike Humphreys, who launched the school's Sqord pilot program two months ago, starting with the fifth-graders and a handful of teachers. It'll soon expand to more staff and students, including the eager fourth-graders who've been banging on Humphreys' office door every day begging for news.
So far, so good -- for the most part. Some students were a little too energetic at first, trying to score extra points when they should have been paying attention in class. Now they've figured out other ways to boost their totals. "I've been told I move when I sleep, so I wear it to bed," 10-year-old Mauricio Zeballos told me during P.E. last week, just before Humphreys asked the class whether they had any feedback.
Every hand in the room shot up. They want to be able to wear it different ways (not just on their wrists). They want the devices to be more interactive. They want the Web portal to have more ways to communicate with friends.
If it weren't for the fact that one of those raised hands was a request to be excused to use the bathroom, I might have forgotten this was a room full of tweens. The issues they raised are the exact same ones that are shaping the adult activity tracking market.
Take, for instance, the wristband issue. The bands are typically made of plastic and rubber, which clash with business or formal attire. That's why Sonny Vu, co-founder and chief executive of Misfit Wearables, is optimistic about its tracker that comes out this spring. The Shine ($99), which is the size of a stack of two quarters, is metal and can be worn on a wristband, a necklace or a clasp (that you can attach to a shoe, bra or pants).
"I don't really know whether self-tracking is all that natural of a thing to do," says Vu, who predicts that devices won't stick around unless they're easy to use and offer something extra. The benefit of the Shine? "Beauty. Our internal design principle is you'd wear it even if it was broken."
But, of course, function is why these products exist at all, and it's still an area that could use improvement.
Most activity trackers do a fine job of figuring out whether you're hunched over your computer all day or out walking. What they can have a tougher time deciphering is more athletic activity. If it can't get wet, you won't swim laps with it. If it's on your wrist, it can't tell that you're killing it in cycling class. And if you're holding a squat or plank, you're not moving at all, so that won't count as anything.
Evolving technology will eventually make those problems ancient history, says Lark chief executive Julia Hu. Larklife ($150), which tracks how much you're moving during the day and sleeping at night, is set to become even more of a know-it-all. The current technology allows the Lark to differentiate between walking and running, and Hu says future versions will be able to determine whether you're biking or doing other movements that have been tricky for devices to identify. (Maybe we'll see that feature in action when the company unveils a product update this spring?)
Trackers are going to have to get more advanced to compete with Amiigo ($99), a waterproof wristband and a shoe clip that will be released in June. Together, the two pieces are able to guess what activity you're doing and count reps and sets, says co-founder Dave Scott.
"Each movement creates a thumbprint, and we look for the closest match in the database," he explains. It'll come loaded with most basic exercises -- such as lunges, bicep curls, dead lifts and burpees -- and users will be able to record and add their own.
The idea is to use Amiigo to learn more about what makes an effective workout, and then share this info via social media to challenge friends to contests and brag about accomplishments.
Another must-have component going forward will be a heart-rate monitor, says Liz Dickinson, chief executive of Mio. Her company just launched the Mio Alpha ($199), a wristwatch/heart-rate monitor that works without a chest strap -- a pulsing light does the trick. Right now, she's pursuing hard-core athletes who demand this kind of data, but she sees the potential for all kinds of customers.
Maybe even schoolkids will one day wear their heart rates on their sleeves. But first, all of this technology needs to get smaller and much, much cheaper.
Those Sqords are billed as kid-proof because they can take a beating and be submerged in water. So, how come 10-year-old Rebekka Long didn't get to check on her points at gym class? "The last time I saw it was in my mom's car," she said. Some technology wizards need to get working on trackers for the trackers.