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Wireless in Sport and Fitness Equipment; Mass Adoption a Marathon not a Sprint

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A trend is now sweeping the fitness and sports equipment industry. Not only are professional sportspersons using sports performance monitors and sensors but the general public is also seeking to enhance their experience of physical activity with such devices. There are opportunities for mass consumer sales of heart rate monitors, speed and distance sensors, speed and cadence sensors, foot pods and many others.

Wireless technologies such as 5kHz, ANT, Bluetooth, Bluetooth low energy, GPS, Zigbee, NFC and WiFi low energy are all contenders to be the front-runner for specific devices. However the playing fields aren't necessarily even, as Filomena Berardi, Market Research Analyst from IMS Research, author of the recent report: "Wireless in Sports and Fitness Equipment", noted.

GPS, for example, has already created quite a niche in a variety of outdoor sport devices, and is now used by runners, golfers, cyclists, hikers and even weekend sailors. GPS can be used for tracking, speed and distance and even as a compass. Furthermore it can be used in conjunction with another wireless technology like Bluetooth, Bluetooth low energy or ANT, to stream data back to host devices like notebook PCs and cell phones. However the main issue remains that GPS is extremely power- hungry for certain sensors.

Other than GPS, consumers can currently purchase ANT-enabled heart-rate monitors, foot pods, pedometers, cycle computers and other devices. ANT for a very long time was the key wireless technology in sports and fitness devices. However, since the conception of Bluetooth low energy, the industry has questioned whether indeed ANT will still lead the field.

Bluetooth low energy has been making a lot of claims that it will take wireless communication in sports and fitness to mass adoption. There is no doubt that being a standard makes the claim somewhat stronger; it also has the backing of many companies, and an established ecosystem. Simply by default it will penetrate the host devices overnight. So Bluetooth low energy might seem like a safe bet.

However, it has also been argued by many in the industry that ANT isn't out of the running just yet. First, ANT is already found in sports and fitness products, where it has focused. Being an open standard means it could bring components to market fast.

Backers of its rival contend that, in the end, standards always win. So for ANT to keep in front, it needs to get over this hurdle. ANT has already announced that it is no longer sole-sourced, a step in the right direction. Furthermore there are talks of the possibility of incorporating ANT in multi-chip protocols to overcome the issue. However, from an IC supplier's perspective, would the benefits of adding ANT outweigh the cost of a combo development? The odds seem stacked up against it.

However, until Bluetooth low energy is incorporated into sport and fitness devices, one can merely speculate which technology will be the wireless winner.

One thing that is clear is that 5kHz technology will run out of steam. 5kHz has been used in gyms for a number of years for heart-rate monitoring, and consumers are able to connect their monitors to gym equipment that are 5kHz-enabled. However, it is believed to be a poor performer; gym equipment suppliers are looking for a better option to overcome the problems of 5kHz such as cross-talk, poor range and poor pairing.

Gym equipment suppliers are keen to get more users to connect to their equipment whilst working out. They too are worried that ANT might not have the staying power for a long race. Many suppliers have said that it might just be easier to use Bluetooth low energy, as users could use their cell phones, sports watches or other personal devices. Essentially, gym equipment suppliers are constrained by what personal devices bring into the gym. These peripherals will drive the market, and they will simply respond. In spite of this, they anticipate that it will take at least 3 years before a prevailing consumer technology will be widely used in gyms.

Other wireless candidates like Zigbee and low power WiFi are considered to be out of the running for now. Zigbee is currently targeted mainly at industrial applications and therefore considered unlikely to play a large part in sports-performance monitors. For low power WiFi, it is considered too early to say, but it might offer some benefits.

This is all well and good; but against all these wireless contenders there is yet one option, that threatens to shatter all dreams of mass short-range wireless adoption - the smartphone. If there are smartphone, independent, applications for sport and fitness, why should the public buy the other special devices? If they don't, then the "wireless winner" might just be an "also-ran".

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