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Jawbone’s Vision: Activity Tracking Now, Remote Control Tomorrow

Fitness bands like the Jawbone Up are in an unusual and enviable position in the electronics business: people rarely take them off.

If you wear a Jawbone Up24 around town, people might ask what it is. The wristband looks like a piece of futuristic jewelry, skinned in a rubbery plastic with a wavy pattern. Even in matte black, the most unexciting of available colors, it stands out.

Sensors inside: Three of the $150 bands sold by Jawbone.

It’s enough to make you forget about what is packed inside the $150 band: an accelerometer, vibrating motor, low-energy Bluetooth radio, and a week’s worth of battery life, which let the Up24 track your activity and sleep and send your data to a smartphone. It can wake you in the morning with a gentle vibration when it senses you’re in a light stage of sleep. It has no display; a few LEDs act as simple visual indicators, and a smartphone app does the rest.

The band is designed in the hope that you’ll wear it almost all the time, taking it off only for charging the battery and going swimming. And that says a lot about how important Jawbone and its main rival, Fitbit, are becoming. Few other companies have gotten people to put—and keep—electronics on their bodies. And getting the technology right is not trivial: Nike, whose Fuelband is considered the No. 3 seller in the market, is reconsidering its strategy and expects to lay off some people on the team behind the product.

“There’s just like a million things you’ve got to think about,” Jawbone cofounder and CEO Hosain Rahman says. “How big are the batteries? How does the technology get small enough so ultimately it disappears and you can wrap it around your wrist and it’s really, really, really easy to integrate? Then you have to make it look good after you do all those other elements.”

The challenge now for Jawbone and its rivals will be to make more out of their nearly nonstop grasp on people’s wrists—perhaps by turning activity-tracking bands into means of controlling other devices.

Early Days

Jawbone began in 1999 as a software company called Aliph, founded by Rahman and Alexander Asseily, who had met as undergraduates at Stanford. Their initial plan was to build something like what we now know as Apple’s Siri virtual assistant. But Rahman and Asseily scrapped that when they realized their speech recognition system wouldn’t be good enough because of problems with eliminating background noise.

So the company shifted to focus on developing digital signal-processing algorithms that were good at cancelling out background noise. In 2004, Aliph put its technology into a headset for the hands-free use of phones. Because the device rested on the face and conducted sound through your bones, it was called the Jawbone. Aliph changed its name to Jawbone in 2010.

Bluetooth headsets are largely seen as awkward and uncool, and their reputation was even worse back when Jawbone emerged. So Jawbone focused on design as a means of standing out—and commanding a premium price. Yves Behar, who designed the first Jawbone headset through his design company Fuseproject and joined Aliph as creative director in 2007, has rolled out a succession of products distinctive for their sleekness and patterned and textured surfaces. This was limited to headsets until late 2010, when Jawbone slowly started to branch out: first with the introduction of the Jambox wireless speaker, and in 2011 with the first version of the Up.

Data Science

The idea behind the various activity-tracking bands is, generally, to collect a great deal of information about your sleep and activity that you wouldn’t otherwise know or have collected in one place. Beyond design, perhaps the key difference between the bands is the software that makes them useful. In Jawbone’s case, the smartphone app that comes with the Up24 nudges people to improve their fitness and well-being. For instance, it encourages users to accomplish small individualized goals that start with the phrase “Today I will” and asks them to commit to doing things like drinking eight glasses of water or going to bed before 10 p.m.

Jeremiah Robison, who heads Jawbone’s software, is trying to figure out even better ways to prod people. This past Thanksgiving—a day when people are less active than normal—Jawbone ran a test with two groups of people who wear Up bands: it left some alone, while it politely manipulated others on the smartphone app by reminding them of their regular daily goal for exercise. Robison says people who received the challenge logged 40 percent more steps.

Ultimately, Jawbone executives see an even more intimate role for wearables. They could serve as a kind of remote control for the rapidly growing class of Internet-connected devices—everything from your air conditioning to your car. You can get inklings of this from the Up24 already. For instance, you can set it to work with the online service IFTTT (“If This, Then That”), so the lights or heat in your house won’t kick on until the band detects that you have awakened for the day.

Eventually, Rahman hopes, several “Internet of things” devices could respond to your needs by taking data from activity-tracking bands. Right now, he says, your thermostat has no idea if you’re feeling hot or cold, let alone whether you’re hot because you went for a run and will soon cool off or because it’s the middle of a long heat wave that calls for the air-conditioning to stay on. Rahman’s vision, he says, is for the gadget on your body to lend such context to the devices around you—giving you yet another reason to never take it off.

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