Misfit Shine and the Pros and Cons of Wearable Fitness Trackers

Misfit Shine and the Pros and Cons of Wearable Fitness Trackers

I don’t like being encumbered. That’s why I stopped wearing a wristwatch years ago, around the time I got my first mobile phone. That’s also why I’ve long looked askance at activity-tracking bracelets like the Fitbit Flex, the Nike FuelBand, and the Jawbone UP. I liked the idea of having more data about my exercise routine, but I just didn’t want a bulky, awkward gadget flopping around on my wrist all day.

But lately I’ve been trying out a sleek new entrant in the fitness wars: the Shine activity tracker from Misfit Wearables. It’s a thin metal disc about the size of two U.S. quarters, and it slips inside a wristband, a pocket clasp, or an amulet on a necklace. It’s the first fitness tracker that’s so small and inconspicuous that I was able to imagine wearing it full-time, which is what I’ve been doing for the last two weeks.

The company is hoping a lot of other people will see Shine the same way. Misfit co-founder and CEO Sonny Vu says his team’s top goal was making a device that was simpler and more wearable than other activity trackers on the market. He sees the slim design, together with the fact that the Shine doesn’t require external cables or regular recharging, as Misfit’s main advantages over its larger rivals. “The option to wear it anywhere” is “a big deal” for Misfit’s customers, especially women, Vu says.

And those are real pluses. But the more I use the Shine, the more I wonder whether any of today’s wearable fitness trackers—which are all built around the same type of internal sensor, a three-axis accelerometer—can really live up to their creators’ promise, which is to make you a more active person.

The basic problem is that there’s only so much data you can gather using an accelerometer. No matter how fancy the mobile app that goes along with the tracker, it’s really just counting the number of footsteps you take every day, the same way an old-fashioned mechanical pedometer would. And unfortunately, the number of steps you’ve walked is a pretty blunt measure of your actual energy expenditure or fitness progress.

Maybe you’re the type of person who doesn’t really care about the data. Maybe all you need to motivate you to get you off the couch and spend more time walking or running today than you did yesterday is a little feedback from some flashing lights on your wrist. In that case, the current generation of wearable trackers may work well for you.

But if you’re like me and you want more fine-grained information about your workouts—such as where you ran, exactly how far you went, how many calories you used, and whether you’re getting faster—you’ll still need to carry a smartphone running some kind of fitness-tracking app like RunKeeper or RunMeter. And that makes Shine and other activity trackers a little redundant.

When it comes to exercise monitoring, in other words, less is less. The Shine, which sells for $120, is certainly elegant—and it makes a cool wristwatch, separate from its activity-tracking features. But a tiny device can only collect and display tiny amounts of information.

The Misfit Shine is about the size of two U.S. quarters placed back-to-back.

The Misfit Shine is about the size of two U.S. quarters placed back-to-back.

Let’s back up a bit and talk about the thinking behind the Shine’s features. As Elise Craig reported in an Xconomy news story about Misfit last year, Vu and his co-founder Sridhar Iyengar come from the world of medical devices. Their previous company, AgaMatrix, built an iPhone accessory that diabetics can use to measure their blood glucose levels. It’s marketed by Sanofi under the name iBGStar, and Vu thinks it’s successful because it’s small and easy to carry around; it doesn’t need much of an interface, since it connects to another device that users already have with them.

The Shine fits the same mold. (Vu and Iyengar recruited former Apple CEO John Sculley as a third co-founder to start Misfit in late 2011. They’ve raised backing from Founders Fund and Khosla Ventures, as well as donors at Indiegogo, who gave $846,000 in a crowdfunding campaign that ended this January.) The aircraft-grade aluminum disk is just 27.5 millimeters in diameter and 3.3 millimeters thick, and weighs 10 grams. The outward face is ringed by 12 LED lights, which shine through tiny laser-drilled holes that are so narrow that water can’t get through, meaning it’s safe to swim or shower while wearing the Shine.

Inside the device, there’s an accelerometer, a processor, a memory chip, and a Bluetooth radio, all powered by a standard watch battery. As you go through your day, the accelerometer measures changes in your direction of movement, and software algorithms translate that data into points measuring progress toward your personalized daily activity goal.

When you tap the device twice with your finger, the LEDs light up to show how close you’re getting to your goal. If you’re at 500 points out of 1000, for example, you’ll see six lights. The LEDs also show the current time, plus or minus a couple of minutes, using a clever sequence of lights that mimics a clock face.

When you want to review your activity, you call up the Misfit app on your iPhone, place the Shine on the screen, and tap it to begin a wireless sync session. The part about putting the Shine directly on top of the screen isn’t just a gimmick: to save battery power, the Bluetooth radio emits an extremely weak signal, so it needs to be right next to the phone to connect.

Once you’ve synced, the Misfit app shows you exactly how many points you earned each day and how many steps you walked or ran. Using some rough algorithms based on your height and weight, it can also … Next Page »

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The Author

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy.

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  • Jen

    Check out more sophisticated wearables like bodymedia for better data. And yes 450 calories for 9000 walking steps is about right. Most of your calories burned is just living, not moving.

  • http://www.xconomy.com/san-francisco Wade Roush

    Matthew Diamond, MD, PhD, medical lead at Misfit Wearables, wrote in with the following comment expanding on the way the Shine firmware calculates calories burned. It’s worth quoting in full:

    “Thanks for your recent article on the Misfit Shine and the pros and cons of wearable fitness devices. I’m writing to comment on the experience you had with Shine’s calorie display, when it said you burned an extra 454 calories on a day when you walked an additional 9,236 steps. Indeed it does take more exercise to burn off a calorie than any of us would like — we can consume 500 calories in just a few minutes, but it takes about five miles of walking to burn that off! Here’s the math:

    -According to the nationally standardized Compendium of Physical Activity*, walking at a moderate pace (3mph) burns, on average, about 3.5 calories per kg per hour.
    -Rounding to 9,000 steps would give us about 4.5 miles, which is about 1.5 hours of walking (without knowing your specific height etc, let’s assume each step is about 2.5 feet, making each mile about 2000 steps). And for a typical 80 kg (175 lb) person, walking 9000 steps would burn 3.5 cals/kg/hr x 80kg x 1.5 hrs ==> 420 calories.

    So for the day when you walked an additional ~9,200 steps, Shine’s calorie estimate of an extra ~450 calories makes sense. (Note that in the above back-of-the-envelope calculation we would ideally subtract the basal metabolic rate, since we’re estimating the added calories of walking vs. not walking over the same period of time — this would lower our quick estimate of calories burned for walking 9,000 additional steps. But in the calculations above we also did not include other factors including the energy expenditure of non-step related activity and the thermic effect of digesting food, which Shine also calculates and which combined with the basal rate are unlikely to have changed the numbers much.) I’ve included a reference below to literature that supports Shine’s calculations of physical activity-related energy expenditure:

    *Ainsworth BE, Haskell WL, Herrmann SD, Meckes N, Bassett Jr DR, Tudor-Locke C, Greer JL, Vezina J, Whitt-Glover MC, Leon AS. 2011 Compendium of Physical Activities: a second update of codes and MET values. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 2011;43(8):1575-1581.

    The Shine team is continuously refining our algorithms and calculations based on increasing data and research, and we appreciate your feedback and welcome your suggestions.

    Best,
    Matthew”

  • Sceptic

    Thanks for the article, Wade. You state that the thickness is 3.3mm, which is also on the shine website – but it also states it has a CR2032 battery (not CR2013 as you suggested – I couldn’t find such a battery with google). The 32 in CR2032 means 3.2mm thick, so it would be practically impossible to have a thickness of 3.3mm for the whole device. Your photo helpfully shows the key dimensions with US quarters for scale, which allows a quick estimate from measurement, and it looks like it’s about 9mm (almost 1cm!) thick – could you confirm this? Your comment about these devices needing to be small is right, but this seems a little more chunky than advertised…

    • http://www.xconomy.com/san-francisco Wade Roush

      Hey Sceptic. I’m looking into your question about the battery. It was a Misfit employee who told me that the replacement battery is a CR2013, but you’re right that the company says elsewhere that it’s a CR2032. As for the thickness of the device, I’ve now measured it myself and you’re right, it looks like it’s between 8mm and 9mm thick — not chunky exactly but a lot thicker than 3.3mm. I’ll look into the origins of the 3.3mm number, which also came from Misfit.

  • Phyllis

    I see that someone from Misfit replied to a post below. Perhaps someone at the company will stoop to respond to me here, as my two e-mails to the company have gone unanswered.
    Be forewarned: it is too easy to lose the tracker disk from within the wristband. My teenage son had his for a total of 5 days before it apparently fell out while he was sleeping at a friend’s, and it has not been found. What an expensive mistake and a huge disappointment. The design needs to be re-thought. My son now has a worthless rubber wristband with no activity tracker.

    • http://www.xconomy.com/san-francisco Wade Roush

      Phyllis — thanks for leaving this comment. I’m sorry to hear your son lost his Shine. In my own experience, the Shine is very solidly lodged in the wristband. It takes both hands to get it out. If it weren’t for your story, I would have said that it would be almost impossible for it to fall out accidentally — and certainly not while wearing it at night.

      • MoistPup

        I had the same issue. I was carrying the duffel bag of a neighbor and swung it over my shoulder, at which point the misfit apparently popped out when the strap from the duffel bag brushed against the misfit strap. They really need to design the strap so that the misfit can only be removed from the side that the arm touches.

    • Chris

      I have had the same issue. Had the device for about three weeks and it popped out of the wristband twice. Unfortunately I didn’t notice it the second time and have no idea where along my travels it fell out (backtracked for hours and found nothing).

      I live in the Northeast and with the recent cold whether have been wearing a number of layers. I suspect that as I was putting on/off my winter jacket, it must have put enough strain/leverage on the device to pop it out – never felt it dislodge and never heard it hit the floor. I don’t know if my smaller wrist size and the tightness of the band may have caused stretching of the rubber enough to make it easier to pop out, but none the less, it is gone.

      I agree with the expense and disappointment — I guess that is the risk with a device that is flexible in its wearing. If they came out with a permanent wristband or a wristband that more encased the device, I would consider getting it again, but given the current configuration, I would think long and hard about making an investment in another Shine.

      And BTW, I really liked the device and found it surprisingly very motivating. The syncing method is very slick and not having to charge it is a plus. Wish I still had it … well not enough to shell out for a new one.

    • http://www.xconomy.com/san-francisco Wade Roush

      Phyllis, I completely take back my earlier reply to your comment, and apologize for sounding so skeptical. The same thing just happened to me. The disk popped out of the wristband at some point in my travels yesterday, and is lost. This does seem to be a design flaw.

  • James Cole

    Battery is weak or device malfunctioning after only 3 days. Not impressed…

  • Rae Claire

    It is a bit large for many women (worn on the wrist). Given that women are perhaps the primary target group for this item, it ought to be better designed. It is over 10 percent wider than a U.S. quarter, and if the band is snugged up on a 5 1/2 inch wrist ( if that’s even possible) to keep the thing from flopping about like a charm bracelet, I think it would tend to pop right out.

  • Betonce M Stein

    i wear mine on my 5 1/2 inch wrist easily, and i also often wear it on my ankle