A fitness device that transforms data into high design

Can you bring simplicity and pleasing aesthetics to wearable fitness devices? New California-based startup Misfit Wearables aims to do just that.
Written by Beth Carter, Contributing Editor

We live in a data-driven world -- one where, if you care about your personal fitness, you are most likely tracking it. It wasn't long ago that the use of pedometers, heart rate monitors and calorie counters was reserved for the borderline obsessive. Devices such as the Nike FuelBand, Adidas miCoach and FitBit have helped simplify the use of this functionality, but they have also changed the way we approach fitness. Today, to be fit is to be data-obsessed. Working out without data just seems...primitive.

Sonny Vu, CEO and co-founder of Redwood City, Calif.-based startup Misfit Wearables, couldn't agree more. He and his business partners found themselves fascinated by these devices. Sensing opportunity, they decided to make their own-- with some notable updates.

"We watched how FuelBand and FitBit were killing it," he said. "We thought, 'We should do this stuff.' All the other products just track steps. What if you're swimming or cycling? You should get more credit."

The product, the Misfit Shine, is an elegant aluminum disc that tracks activity and syncs with your smartphone without the use of wires. With nary a rubberized extrusion or brightly-colored part (indicating it's for "sport"), the Shine represents the logical next step in fitness electronics: a data-driven device that's as fashionable on the outside as it is geeky on the inside.

With a successful crowd-funding round on Indiegogo ($100,000 goal; almost $200,000 raised so far), the Shine has had somewhat of a cozy, well-planned birth compared to similar startups. But it's by design: the seasoned entrepreneurs have done everything they could to make Misfit's coming out party go as smoothly as possible.

Vu left his Ph.D program in Linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (where he studied under Noam Chomsky) to start his own software company. Before long, Vu diversified into hardware with a second startup company, Agamatrix, a pioneering mobile health company known for making the first glucose meter for Apple's iPhone. In the last 10 years, Agamatrix has amassed a value of some $300 million, an impressive figure for Vu and his business partner Sridhar Iyengar.

Enter John Sculley, formerly of Apple and PepsiCo, who met Vu at a dinner and received an impromptu product demonstration. The two hit it off, kept in touch for a year and, after throwing around some ideas, founded a company together. Vu left Agamatrix to pilot Misfit in October 2011; Iyengar kept his stake in the old company and took another in the new company. The new company would focus on a product to be worn, and the partners eventually settled on a high-design fitness tracker that could take swimming and biking into account as easily as running.

The company selected a discreet design for the device, eschewing plastic for aircraft-grade aluminum. Inside, the team replaced step tracking with goal tracking. (What everyone really wants to know, Vu said, isn't how many steps they travel, but how much of their daily activity goals they have achieved.) The final device is about as big as a quarter, and about as thick as a stack of three.

"Wearable stuff these days is a misnomer, it's not that wearable," Vu said. " It's just beautiful. You tap it, and it lights up. You can wear it anywhere."

On the outside, a circle of lights represents how much of your goal you have accomplished that day. When the circle is complete, you've reached your goal. Multiple taps take it to cycling and swimming mode, which change the rate at which you accomplish that goal to accommodate for those types of exercise. (The Shine is advertised as waterproof.)

To attach it, the wearer wraps a small clasp around the groove along the edge of the device. A small magnet can be used to attach it to a shirt, or an included attachment can be used to wrap it around the wearer's wrist.

"You can wear it on your bra," Vu added as he demonstrated to SmartPlanet the various ways the device can be worn. "We have some Trekkies here, so you could even wear it as a broach."

The device is wireless by design, but its exterior material makes it difficult to transmit and receive signals. (This is one reason why most other wearable devices are made of plastic.) Vu and company worked around this hurdle by allowing the wearer to place the Shine on their Apple iPhone. When a corresponding app is launched, the device will begin transferring its data automatically.

"We were inspired by a scene from Iron Man 2," Vu said, "where they're in the war room and he puts a flash drive on a TV screen and the information just flows out of it. We thought, 'Man, we are going to do that in some way.' We had a lot of fun doing this."

The other triumph? Its waterproof design -- no small feat for a device with status lights. The team managed to do this by micro-perforating the metal with curved, not columnar, holes to allow light to refract out but deny water from entering.

"It's the best work we've ever done," Vu said.

As befits the product's positioning, Misfit is in the process of talking to jewelers and sports designers to make accessories for the device; one example will be a more stylish leather wrist band that emphasizes its everyday wearability.

Though the company's crowd-funding campaign on Indiegogo is still underway, Shine's creators have already assembled a supply chain that gives Misfit the capacity to produce 600,000 units per month. The first units are scheduled for delivery in March 2013.

"I think people want more," Vu said. "This is basically as pure of a design as you get."

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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