Wednesday, February 08, 2006

My 1000th Post: More on Bones in Motion and the Cellphone as Training Device

Hard to believe this is my 1000th post since starting this blog last Summer. Thanks to my former colleague Phil Gomes for giving me the inspriation to spew out all sorts of content at a prolific rate that is further polluting the blogosphere :-)

Anyway to commemorate the event, I decided to write a very lengthy review of sorts that combines one of my favorite activites, running, with mobile devices, content and services.

I recently posted about
Bones in Motion's location aware mobile application that turns a GPS chip-enabled handset into a personal trainer that tracks distance, speed and route when running, hiking or cycling. I had a nagging feeling that I was being too harsh in my assessment of the service so I decided to revisit it as well as test their free BiM Active activity logging and tracking web portal.

Bones in Motion has two components to their service. The first is a subscription service, which is currently only available via Sprint Nextel for $9.99 a month. Right now there are 5 GPS-enabled handsets that can use the service to wirelessly capture and monitor fitness activity in real-time. Once the activity is completed it is automatically uploaded to the BiM Active website. Since I don't have the right handset and I'm on Cingular, I couldn't try the mobile location based service (LBS).

I was, however, able to try the second component, the BiM Active web portal. I signed up for a free account and the personalized home page has lots of useful information, such as most recent activity, a running total of mileage, local weather, and upcoming events. I uploaded a run I did yesterday from my Garmin Forerunner 201. This was a multi-step process since I first had to upload the activity from the device into the donationware GPS-enabled exercise logbook app I use called SportTracks, and then exported it in .GPX format to my desktop so it could be uploaded to BiM Active. MotionBased, which was acquired by Garmin last Fall, is a similar web portal that alllows people to upload their activities via a PC agent, but it charges a subscription fee for enhanced features.

Once uploaded to BiM Active, I was able to view information about the run, such as a map of the route, distance, charts and other stuff. I then published the info to my personal blog at BiM Active. I wish they had a way I could publish some of the data elsewhere, but maybe that will come at a later time. It's a pretty nice service and similar to MotionBased. However, I prefer to use a PC app like SportTracks, because it has more features and allows you to edit information and customize what you want to see. Plus, I'm not all that interested in sharing my activity information to others in the community, especially when the majority of my runs start and end at my home as I mentioned in my earlier post.

In terms of accuracy, it seems like BiM Active takes the information directly from the GPS device (i.e. 9.17 miles) while MotionBased (9.12 miles) and SportTracks (9.09 miles) use some type of complex algorithms to analyze and massage the GPS data. On a side note, I recorded the run at 8.95 miles based on past experience and measurements. Which one was most accurate? Who knows!

Regarding the mobile subscription LBS, obviously I can't comment on how it works, but here are my personal thoughts based on reading the website. Please note, I'm a dedicated device person, and plan to purchase the Garmin Forerunner 305 when it goes on sale next week (I hope!) so I'm a bit biased :-)

From a safety/practical standpoint, it makes sense. If you exercise solo and/or in the early morning or at night (especially women) then carrying a handset is a good idea. It's even more important if you go to out of the way areas, when you might not see another person for long stretches. Adding the activity monitoring and tracking capability to the handset is a bonus and means one less thing to carry of wear. The wireless sync feature to the BiM Active portal is also a big plus as uploading activity info to the PC can be a pain.

On the downside, the service is currently only available for Sprint Nextel and on 5 clamshell handsets. I'm sure Bones in Motion is negotiating with other network operators and porting it to other platforms and handsets so I hope more options open up soon. This will speed up adoption since I'm not sure many people will base their choice of carrier and handset purchase solely on this service alone.

Another issue I have is usage model. I like to look at my watch to gauge time, pace and distance. So that leaves out strapping the handset to my upper arm, like a portable music player, or putting it a pocket. This means carrying it in my sweaty hands. The fact that it's only available at this point on flip phones doesn't help,since you have to open up the handset everytime you want an update on your status. It would probably be better suited for a candy bar form factor. I guess the same applies for cyclists too as you would need to mount the handset on the handlebar to access the data.

However, if you only want to know how far you went and for how much time it took after you finished then disregard all of the above. Just start it up on the handset, put it in your pocket, and then wirelessly upload the info when your done. Sounds pretty simple.

FYI, currently if you want to listen to music from your handset and track your activity, you can't. It's either one or the other or carrying a second device. Sames goes for taking a call, which will put the service on hold.

My biggest issue is the subscription model. $9.99 a month is a lot, but then again I'm cheap and I'm a dedicated device guy as well. If you rather rent than own then give it a try. With all that said, I wonder if there will be enough uptake to make it viable.

From a broader LBS perspective, I see a lot of potential for similar services, especially if you can push routes to the handset and incorporate real-time tracking. I can envision new types of events, contests and promotions, such as races, orienteering, treasure hunts, etc. that use the technology, and let people track the participants' progress via the web. Could be cool if done right.

In the end, Bones in Motion is a nice start, but we still have a long ways to go. In the meanime, I'll stick with the Garmin Forerunner on my wrist....