The winner of SXSW? Wearable computing. It was the big story of the Austin festival last week, coming up during panels and in conversations at restaurants, concerts, and parties. The fire was only fueled by Google Glass, which could be seen all over the city. But it wasn’t just Google’s futuristic eyewear that made its presence known. During my stay, I also noticed a huge number of people wearing activity-tracking tools such as Nike’s FuelBand and Jawbone’s Up.
So while everyone was asking what’s next for Google Glass, I found myself especially curious about what’s next for the FuelBand and Up. The devices are not only ideal for keeping track of your energy output—part of the quantified-self trend—but also serve as a powerful marketing tool for Nike and Jawbone (reasons why Apple is said to be so interested in the products). During my reporting for Fast Company's feature on Nike, which was named the world’s Most Innovative Company, I learned about a range of features and concepts cut from the existing version of the FuelBand, which may signal where the product is heading next. (We also have a great interview with Jawbone CEO Hosain Rahman from SXSW, which will come soon enough.) As one source told me, there were enough smart ideas nixed from the final version to give Nike "a five-year road map."
The FuelBand is a sleek electronic bracelet that clasps to your wrist, and with the click of its only button, it slides information across the band: calories burned, steps taken, and so forth. But according to a number of sources, early concepts for the device weren’t always designed as bracelets. "It was never mandated that it had to be on the wrist," one source told me.
Indeed, there were hundreds of prototypes created throughout the process, with concepts that even fit over your leg or upper arm. There were also early prototypes that the teams imagined to include e-ink displays so they’d resemble an Amazon Kindle screen, prototype bands that fully illuminated with color, and even one concept with a fastening system modeled after a gas nozzle.
So could the next FuelBand possibly be designed for a place other than on your wrist? As Stefan Olander, VP of Nike’s Digital Sport group, hinted, "You know, wherever there is a good place to learn about the body, we’re looking at it.
For Nike, one of the most significant advantages of the FuelBand is that it turns every one of its users into a walking and talking (and running) brand advocate. Just as the swoosh helped Nike enter the zeitgeist through being plastering on the sneakers and shirts of the world’s celebrities, pro athletes, and average Joes, so too does the FuelBand assist Nike in connecting with a larger audience. It creates an intimate link between the company and its consumers, who share a swath of data with Nike and even through social media, where users can share their progress on Nike+ with friends and family.
But at one point during the development of FuelBand, Nike thought to take this marketing connection to an entirely new level. According to multiple sources, Nike considered using the system to create campfire moments. Imagine, say, if Nike were able to light up all the FuelBands in the world at a particular time and sync up with its community in real time, such as when the Olympics or World Cup commenced. "The idea was that at a certain time of year, all FuelBands would light up—the idea was that it was going to make it alive and connected to a larger community," one source told me. Said another, "It’d be this moment after they’d all the introductions, and all the lights went down, and there would be some sort of Fuel-like startup for the Olympics."
The idea never came to fruition, but several sources say Nike might’ve kept it under wraps in case they want to rehash the plans down the road.
For the launch of FuelBand, Nike invented a proprietary metric of activity called NikeFuel. It was basically a rebranding of the calorie, with Nike saying it was a more universal metric of activity that better captured energy output across a variety of sports and activities, whether you’re playing baseball or dancing salsa. While Nike envisioned it would inspire more competition, the company also imagined a time when Fuel points could be collected in aggregate for public causes.
"There were a bunch of concepts where, well, if you get 10,000 Fuel points, Nike donates something on your behalf or you get your name on this thing that’s like, 'I supported this thing this month,'" says one source. "You’d be able to share on Facebook, a little card you get, that made you feel good about what you did. Every month there would be a single charity or just kind of a theme, like say, fighting cancer. All your points would go toward that month’s goal. And people could get other friends that didn’t have Nike to support them and pledge: 'If [you] get 10,000 points, I’ll also give this charity.' "
The charity idea didn’t pan out (or at least not yet), but that didn’t stop the teams involved with FuelBand from considering other uses of Fuel points. As sources have described, Nike did spend some amount of time thinking of Fuel points as a currency. "There used to be this idea where you could have this weekly Fuel goal, and if you hit it, you got some sort of prize," one source explained. "Nike was interested to see the range at which people would participate in the idea of Fuel to earn something as small as an iTunes gift card, or things going all the way up to tickets for events. They were really interested in turning this info into some rewards program."
The company also tinkered with the idea of making Fuel points spendable on Nike products. But as that source described, "They were worried it would cheapen the value of Fuel. They were afraid that if it was perceived too much like a rewards system for getting Nike products, people wouldn’t believe in the products and in Fuel as a meaningful measure of activity."
Nike CEO Mark Parker hinted to me that Nike’s digital future is about more personalization and more encouragement. He told me about body-controlled music and color-coded heart rates. But the Nike team has also considered a much simpler solution to making FuelBand more personal and motivational—the company at one point considered selling FuelBands synced in pairs, so friends and significant others could track each other’s progress. "They would be bonded together so you and your significant other would buy them, and you’d always be able to see what the other person was doing, or what their activity level was at," said one source.
"If you would have this daily goal, but what if you also had a Fuel buddy, someone you know, and you’d both be getting it at the same time?" says another source. "You’d be able to kind of high-five each other as you hit your goal. You build in some social accountability."
But the teams didn’t stop there in imagining syncing could just be for spouses or pairs. As the source added, "It obviously could be brought to groups of friends once it became more mainstream, with a leadership board for Fuel games. There could be head-to-head Fuel challenges. If you had a soccer team or a basketball team, you could match them up against the football team or the volleyball team. And you’d, say, have a week to earn the most."
So could these features end up in version 2.0 of the FuelBand? As one of the sources explained, "A lot of [these things] are probably still possible. It’s more about timing."