With great amounts of data comes great responsibility
Fitness tracking devices have undergone a substantial makeover as they’ve made the move from the pocket to your wrist. Once the domain of small, clip-on gizmos that were marketed on how unobtrusive they could be, products like the Nike+ FuelBand and Jawbone’s Up have blazed the trail towards big and bold bracelets that traffic on their sense of style as much as their capabilities. Despite the change in form factor, however, they haven’t added much to their bag of tricks: they’re still essentially glorified pedometers at heart. One of the newest entrants into the field, the Basis B1 fitness band, hopes to change all that.
While it does track your steps like the competition, the $199 watch adds an array of new data types into the mix — along with a software system that Basis thinks will help users develop healthy habits easier. With sensors that can track your heart rate, skin temperature, and the amount of perspiration on your skin, the Basis band seems like something out of Star Trek — but whether the extra data actually makes a difference in improving your physical fitness or sleep patterns is another question.
Retro charm meets minimalist design
At a distance the Basis B1 looks like a chunky digital watch straight out of the 1980s. That's meant as a compliment — there's a retro charm to the B1 that's enhanced by the minimalism of its design. A physical button on the side resets the device (you have to hold it for a good 15 seconds before the device turns off), while the interface is controlled through four touch-sensitive metal pins that frame the display. They're nice and responsive — even when your hands get sweaty — and I liked being able to use discrete buttons rather than poking at a touchscreen of some sort. That said, there's only so much you can do on the watch itself. Along with triggering the backlight or bringing up the date (like any good watch the B1 displays the time by default), you can scroll through three metrics: steps taken, calories burned, and your current heart rate. One word of warning, though: the shiny face of the watch is a lint magnet.
The display itself is middle of the road — I found myself angling my wrist just so to deal with sunlight washout at times — but it usually performed as well as it needed to. In fact, I quickly became dependent on it. I haven't worn a watch in years, but using the B1 I remembered how much easier it is to check the time on my wrist rather than reach for my phone (in a nice touch, a healthy flick of the wrist triggers the backlight — though at times it seemed to require a little too healthy a twist).
While the display is always on, the backlight times out after about five seconds, so unless you have an unhealthy temporal obsession it shouldn't affect battery life too much. Basis estimates a single charge should last between 3 to 4 days, but I was able to stretch it to 5 days in my use. The B1 recharged from my laptop in about 2.5 hours.
The accelerometer is built into the device, but the additional sensors require direct skin contact so they're tucked into the underside of the watch. The majority of the sensors are simple metal contacts, but the highlight is the heart rate monitor. It's actually an optical sensor that shines light down into the skin, and then uses the reflection to monitor the blood flow in your capillaries — and hence, your pulse. It sounded like a bit of a stretch at first, but I put it up against a stand-alone heart-rate monitor and found that it was always within five beats per minute (though Basis does caution that the B1 is for measuring heart rate "patterns", and not precise, minute-by-minute measurements). Despite the different sensor types, the Basis is water-resistant — so while you won't want to go swimming with it, I took it into the shower without issue.
Unfortunately, the polyurethane watch band itself did get uncomfortable after extended periods of wear. With its variety of sensors, the tracker obviously needs consistent, stable skin contact, but the band is fairly rigid, and I would have preferred a middle ground between "feels too loose" and "imprints on my skin." Unfortunately the band is of Basis' own design, so you can't swap in your own; the best you can do is mix a white band with a black watch, though Basis does say more strap colors and styles are coming in the future).
Syncing and charging is where some design flaws really start to show, however. While Bluetooth is built into the device, it's actually not functional at the moment — it won't go live until the company's mobile apps surface (more on that later). Instead, the only way to sync and charge the B1 is via USB using the included "cradle." It's actually more of a flimsy, snap-on plastic frame than a dock of any sort, and getting it to work consistently was its own exercise in pain and suffering. I regularly needed to remove and re-attach the cradle in order to complete a sync, complete with byzantine error messages from the Basis app on my computer. The whole process just felt clunky, and given how fundamental syncing is for this kind of device — to say nothing of the effortless solutions provided by the FuelBand and Fitbit's line of products — there's really no excuse for this kind of approach.
Tracking yourself with the B1 is a breeze
With other trackers, doing anything beyond simple step counting gets a bit dicey. Monitoring your sleep patterns on the Fitbit One, for example, requires wrist holsters, special modes, and compound button presses. It's all more fuss than it's worth. The B1, on the other hand, is a breeze. All data is recorded at all times, and when it comes to sleep tracking, it engages its arsenal of sensors to figure out when you've drifted off all on its own, no questions asked. While that may seem like a small detail, it's one of those a-ha! moments that's so convenient you can't imagine using a product that works any other way.
That type of data crossover doesn't manifest itself in the other ways the B1 operates, however. There's no type of activity-specific pattern recognition here like Nike's FuelBand offers — but then again, there's no self-styled new metric that requires it, either. For periodic check-ins, the watch itself displays the steps you've taken, the calories you've burned, and your heart rate, but the rest of the data is accessible only online.
It makes for a day-to-day experience that is ultimately quite different than Basis' competitors. Where the FuelBand seems designed to draw out your competitive instinct, and the Up and Fitbit devices can be high maintenance if you want to take full advantage of their features, the B1 just hangs out on your wrist. Matched with the basic biological functions it's measuring — perspiration level, temperature, and heart rate — it feels less like a fitness companion and more like a device that simply records your life.
As for the data itself, it was as accurate as one would hope for. I ran several tests to evaluate the validity of its step counter — and it performed right in line with the competition.
Hardware and raw data are only half the story, however — software is where fitness trackers transform information into inspiration. The workflow here is what you'd expect: you sync the B1 to your computer, and the Basis website provides the breakdown and analytics. The hook is something Basis calls "Habits." Essentially, they're pre-defined goals you sign up for across a variety of different categories — taking a given number of steps in a day, logging a certain amount of sleep, being active for a set period of time. Basis only lets you sign up for a few Habits at a time, but as you succeed you gain points that let you add additional goals. The idea is to prevent users from setting too many lofty expectations all at once — expectations they could fail to meet, and grow discouraged as a result.
Of course, signing up for as many goals as possible was precisely what I wanted to do when I started. Fortunately, I racked up points pretty rapidly — one of the goals is to simply wear the band for 12 hours a day — and I was able to add new habits to my collection before long. (Completing habits on successive days also adds a multiplier to the points you earn.) The overall approach does work, though; while I may have been impatient to start, I kept focused on the immediate goals at hand. Turning the user's desire to take full advantage of the system into a motivation tool is a clever psychological trick, and while it's not sustainable, it did get me headed in the right direction.
I started out impatient, but I focused on the goals at hand
As clever as the setup may be, however, the goals themselves are particularly mundane. Getting up at a consistent time or taking an evening walk might be ways to improve your health in a broad, general sense, but they're not particularly aspirational — nor do they leverage the amount of data the device is collecting in any appreciable way. You can tweak the goals to make them more or less challenging, but you can't roll your own, and what's there doesn't stretch beyond what's already available in the marketplace.
Adding to the problems is the lack of a decent feedback system. There's no "habit view" on the B1 itself. A small icon on the homescreen shows you how far along you are towards your daily step goal — but if you're worried about any of your other habits you're out of luck. It's a real weakness when compared to something like the FuelBand, whose colored LEDs, app integration, and Fuel metric all serve to keep you focused and motivated. I may have decided I should take 2,000 steps in the morning and go to bed by 10PM, but if the Basis band doesn't help me remember to do those things, it can't really help me achieve them. It simply becomes a diary of my failures after the fact.
If it sounds like a lot of these issues could be solved by a good mobile app, I'd agree — and Basis did give me a preview of what it's developing. Planned for both Android and iOS, the app features a strong emphasis on Habits, will allow for wireless syncing via Bluetooth, and will also push reminders to users to help them keep on track with their various goals. Basically, it takes the things that would be self-contained on the watch in an ideal world, and moves them to your pocket — though we'll have to see the shipping version to know for sure. Unfortunately Basis says the apps won't be available until the end of this quarter.
That feeling that I was dealing with a half-baked software solution carried over to the Basis website as well. The Habits system is obviously present, and the site does provide some daily overviews of your behavior — ranking the quality of your sleep, for example, or breaking down calories burned and minutes of physical activity. Unfortunately, the analysis doesn't go much deeper than that. (Basis told us it calculates its sleep quality score based on the hours you've slept and the times you were interrupted; it uses both the accelerometer and heart rate changes to determine when those interruptions occur.)
Basis provides a number of colorful graphs and breakdowns of the raw data — and on one level, they're just really fun to explore unto themselves. You can spot broad trends in your body temperature or heart rate, or create a combination graph juxtaposing the perspiration level of your skin with the number of steps you took during the day. Over extended periods of time, there are definitely changes to be tracked. But while the Basis band provided me all of this information, it couldn't tell me what any of it actually meant. The main selling point of the B1 is more sensors providing more data leading to a healthier lifestyle, but without more cohesive analysis or user guidance it's hard to see how you'd ever get to that last step. Instead, it's the same glorified pedometer as all the other players. A pedometer with some amazing bells and whistles, but a pedometer all the same.
In fact, the lack of analysis actually became disconcerting at several points. For example, I noticed a fairly consistent spike in my perspiration level between midnight and 3AM every night. Did that mean the heat was coming on? That I was using one too many blankets? Or was it the first subtle sign of some nefarious affliction? With the Basis there's no context for any of the raw data you're looking at. Information is power, to be certain, but information in a vacuum is useless at best — and dangerous at worst.
Again, some of this may be resolved in the future. Basis told me that it is working on new ways to use its data, and is developing new Habits for the future — but at the moment it feels like a substantial piece of the puzzle is missing. The same goes for an API; there's one coming, but as of right now you can't use the device with third-party apps like Lose It! and MyFitnessPal. Given that the Basis website doesn't let you track weight or caloric intake, the result is a fairly limited overall solution.
Just collecting data isn't enough
The Basis B1 is a frustrating product. As a pure data collection device, there’s nothing out there that can match it. Its automatic sleep mode and integrated heart rate sensor set a new baseline, and it will be hard to use competing devices that don’t offer the same. For every thing it does right, however, there’s something fundamental it gets wrong... or doesn’t have ready. Yet.
It’s been a long time coming — we first got a look at it during CES last year — but I couldn’t help but wonder if the device wouldn’t have benefited from a little more time in the oven. The largest issue may be one of focus. Is it a body recorder? A fitness tracker? Something to help the average person shape the broad contours of their life? A way for the data obsessed to explore their body’s biological nuances? Right now, it never commits wholeheartedly in any one direction, and unless the sleep functionality is your primary deciding factor, you can find less expensive options elsewhere.
If anything, the B1 feels like the beta version of a truly compelling product. As Basis improves its system and rolls out the features and app it’s working on, that product may emerge. I hope it does, because there is some incredible potential here, and I definitely see a place for a more full-featured version of the Basis band in my life. For the moment, however, I’m left wanting — and waiting.