Exercise gadget integration hasn’t exactly been elegant in the past. It’s been half a decade since Apple transitioned to the lighting connector, and still I regularly see the long-retired iPod 30-pin cable flopping off treadmill dashboards at gyms all around the country. It’s impossible to say how any of this will look five years from now, but at the very least, Apple’s new GymKit offering is certainly more refined than most of what’s come before it.
Unveiled at WWDC over the summer, the platform is designed to make wearing an Apple Watch a more seamless experience. It uses a combination of NFC and Bluetooth to maintain a constant exchange of information between the two devices. The watch is better at collecting some data (calories, heart rate) and the equipment is better at others (distance, incline). All of that data is displayed on the watch and the machine’s display in real time, and aggregated in Apple’s Health app.
The feature has already launched in five gyms in Australia and a couple in the U.K. It launches here in the U.S. this week, at the Life Time athletic club in Manhattan, with more spots like Equinox getting their hands on GymKit-enabled equipment in the near future. It’s a bit of a slow roll out, given the relative expense of replacing gym equipment, but it should speed up fairly quickly, as a number of equipment makers have signed on to Apple’s platform.
The company says it’s got about 80 percent of the gym fitness markets hare covered, starting with Italian manufacturer TechnoGym, which is going to start adding the functionality to every treadmill it makes from here on out. Other pieces of equipment will follow, including step machines and stationary bikes. Apple’s also exploring partnerships with manufacturers of home equipment.
I got a demo of the equipment here in the city earlier today, and it all operates as smoothly as you’d hope. You hold the watch up to a designated point on the machine, and it pairs via NFC — basically the same experience as buying something with Apple Pay. And it’s compatible with all models of Apple Watch.
The intentional pairing process is important so the machine doesn’t just automatically pull data from your device. After all, the Health app stores potentially sensitive information like weight and age, which you might not want to share with a strange piece of exercise equipment. From there, the process is basically a couple of taps.
As a regular treadmill runner, I’m looking forward to the feature rolling out more widely. Apple’s done a pretty decent job calculating things like pace and distance without the use of GPS, but fitness machines offer an even more accurate reading. They also do a better job with things like flights climbed and inclined. That said, they suck at heart rate and things like calories burned, because they don’t have your vitals (height, weight, etc.), unless you plug in that information. GymKit is an attempt to combine the best data sets from both devices.
Equipment manufacturers seem eager to embrace the tech in an attempt to offer up the latest and greatest to gyms. How long it will actually take to circulate is another question entirely. Those pricey sports clubs will likely be the first to get it, and others will probably wait until the end of life on their current devices. Apparently the upgrade cycle is around five years for these professional pieces of sports equipment — though I’m pretty sure I regularly encounter ones from the height of Jazzercise in hotel fitness rooms.
That said, some companies are offering up a retrofitting service. Depending on the specific manufacturer, that could be as simple as inserting a new chip into the back of the machine. For others, it will require replacing the top console altogether. That’s also good news for future upgrades, meaning the days of dangling connectors might soon be behind us.