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State of the Art: Bracelet Tries to Nudge You Closer to Good Health - State of the Art PDF Print E-mail

Maybe you’ve heard. We Americans are not, ahem, the very models of physical fitness. We’re overweight, underexercised and underslept.

We don’t need more studies to remind us that being so fat, lazy and tired is bad for our mood, productivity and health. What we need is to change our ways.

Where there’s a will, there’s a gadget. Jawbone, the maker of sleek Bluetooth earpieces and colorful wireless portable speakers, now offers a product that’s only distantly related to its predecessors: the Up wristband ($100). The tiny motion sensors inside are designed to monitor your activity and sleep, and, by confronting you with a visual record of your habits, inspire you to do better.

This isn’t a new idea. The active ingredient is the same one found in previous “Get healthier” gadgets like the FitBit, Philips DirectLife and Nike+iPod: an accelerometer, a motion sensor like the one in a Wii remote control.

If you conscientiously wear these devices, they work. The simple act of monitoring your own behavior inevitably encourages you — to climb more stairs, park farther away and bike instead of drive.

The Up bracelet tries to improve on those devices in two important ways. First, its textured rubber exterior, available in a variety of colors and wrist sizes, is waterproof up to (or, rather, down to) three feet. The idea is that you can wear the band 24/7, even when you swim or take a shower.

Second, the Up band uses an iPhone app as its brains and screen. Brilliant! You’re already carrying around a computer with a colorful touch screen; why shouldn’t it work with your glorified pedometer? (An Android version is in the works.)

The band contains a metal spine; it’s flexible but always returns to its closed oval shape when you let go. It’s not a complete circle. It’s more like an overgrown C — the ends shoot past and overlap each other. On one end, there’s a clickable metal button and a couple of tiny indicator lights. On the other, a tiny removable cap conceals the Up’s connector to your iPhone: a headphone minijack.

Yes, that’s right: the Up band connects to your iPhone through its headphone jack. That’s both its most ingenious idea and its most idiotic.

Relying on the headphone jack means that the Up band can, in theory, communicate with any phone brand. But it’s not a wireless connection, when it screams out to be wireless. Jawbone’s earpiece and portable speakers are models for clever use of Bluetooth; why on earth can’t your bracelet send its data to your phone wirelessly?

The answer, according to the company, is that Bluetooth would shorten the band’s 10-day battery life.

Still, that design is a crushing disappointment. Now, several times a day, you’re supposed to take the band off your arm, remove its cap, insert the plug into your phone’s headphone jack, open the app, tap a Sync button to open the Sync screen, tap another Sync button to start the sync, and wait while the latest activity data gets sent from the bracelet to your phone. Then, after the sync, put everything back together and back on your arm.

The plugging-in business just feels ancient and wrong. It means you have to take off your bracelet. It means you’ll lose the tiny cap. And get this: the band doesn’t even charge in that manner. To charge the band, you’re supposed to connect it to a tiny proprietary USB cable that’s plugged into a computer. You’ll lose that cable, too.

If you do manage to sync the band to your phone, you see a graph of your health activity, represented by colorful bars.

One shows physical activity, as measured in steps, distance and calories tallied by the band. (I was disappointed not to get any credit for a 90-minute bike ride. It was certainly exercise, but of course my wrist didn’t move much. The company says that the current version is tailored for running and walking, but that you can record other kinds of activity — swimming, yoga, rowing machines, biking — manually. The app can also record your runs, hikes or bike rides using the GPS function.)

If you need further inspiration, the app also lists Challenges offered by fitness companies: to get an extra hour of sleep, to walk 100,000 steps this week and so on. The challenges from dailyfeats.com let you earn real-world discount coupons from local merchants or donations to nonprofits — an excellent additional incentive.

Maybe the best motivator is the sedentary-time alarm. You can set the band to vibrate, cellphone-style, every time you haven’t budged for, let’s say, an hour. It’s an appalling, visceral reminder of how much time you spend sitting there, motionless.

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