I spent Sunday afternoon judging Hackfit SF, a weekend-long competition to come up with the best new fitness app or gadget. I wasn’t sure what to expect. For the most part, the hardware and software I use in my workouts have been refined over years if not decades. Could a team of coders and designers really come up with something over the course of the weekend that caught my eye?
The results surprised me. The top three entrants came up with ideas that could plausibly become businesses. More importantly, they highlight the gaps in today’s marketplace that someone—could be indie coders or big, established players, I’m not fussy—needs to fill.
All The Code That’s Fit
Hackfit is the brainchild of Justin Mendelson, a 25-year-old triathlete who found he couldn’t roll with the unhealthy aspects of startup life, like junk-food-fueled, all-night coding jams. After holding the first event in Boston, where he’s based, he brought Hackfit to San Francisco this March.
The event mixes group exercise like rock-climbing classes and cycling with the traditional marathon coding sessions of hackathons—minus the sleepless nights. (Staying up coding is strongly discouraged, since lack of sleep is strongly correlated with health problems.)
When I arrived at the headquarters of social network Tagged for the judging, the contestants were making furious final preparations on their presentations. There were a few tell-tale signs of the fitness culture Mendelson is brewing: a Rebel treadmill desk, healthy fare for lunch, and exercise balls and mats scattered here and there. Several contestants were wearing yoga pants or other exercise gear—understandably, since hours of activity over the weekend counted as part of a team’s overall score. (To fit in with the crowd, I’d thrown on an Under Armour top, and warmed up at the gym beforehand.)
Some of the ideas were half-baked or poorly presented. But a few rose to the top.
Finding Friends At The Gym Or On The Run
Two teams, Endorfriends and WolfPack, offered solutions to the problem of finding workout buddies.
Endorfriends, the winner of the event, took home a $1,000 prize for offering a turnkey social network for gyms. Most gyms face a big problem with churn: Marketing themselves to new customers is far more expensive than retaining existing ones. And a big part of why members stick with a gym are the friends and acquaintances they make there.
WolfPack, the third-place winner, showed a slick working demo of an app that found other people running or working out nearby in real time, with the notion that you can join both formal and informal outdoor-exercise groups on the fly.
Both of these ideas resonated with my own experiences. When I taught an outdoor bootcamp a few years ago, one of the biggest challenges was simply finding people to participate and letting them know the class existed. And I’d pretty much given up on my efforts to find a compatible workout buddy; existing social networks don’t make it easy to search on, say, who’s a member of the same gym. (My most recent workout partner was a friend from the neighborhood whom I ran into by chance one weekend at our local 24 Hour Fitness.)
Group exercise is part of the program at Hackfit.
Making Heart-Rate Monitoring Easier
One of the best ways to tell if you’re working out hard enough is by measuring your heart rate. Yet heart-rate monitors remain far too expensive and complicated to set up. I’ve had to become an expert on troubleshooting Bluetooth connections and assessing heart-rate zones to derive benefits from the ones I’ve tested.
TeamPulse, made up of Brenda Jin and Melissa Kelly, hacked together a working prototype of a simple heart-rate monitor that displays its status with simple red, yellow, or green lights, telling you visually whether you’re in the zone. The parts, Jin said, cost less than $50. Their effort was all the more impressive considering that their professional backgrounds were largely in software—user experience and interface design—not hardware.
TeamPulse took second place, winning a $500 prize—which could go a surprisingly long way towards paying for more prototypes, considering the plummeting cost of components and the ease of 3D-printing cases and attachments.
Another team, ZenBeat, proposed analyzing heart-rate variability data to determine stress levels. While their product was in far more rudimentary state and their presentation was less impressive, I liked the concept. As Wired’s Mat Honanrecently noted, heart-rate variability may give us far more data about our health than a simple pulse-taking. One wellness-detecting device I’ve written about, the Scanadu Scout, promises to measure heart-rate variability in assessing users’ health.
Locating Healthy Food
One of the more controversial apps presented was Liiffee (pronounced “leafy”), an online … salad finder. I know, right? The team’s presentation was so sincere, yet the idea so ridiculously specific, that I wondered if they were punking us. (Hackfit organizer Mendelson tells me that the Liiffee team is planning to develop the product further.)
No junk food was to be found at Hackfit SF.
Once I got over the giggle factor, though, I realized the Liiffee team had a point. Every restaurant on the planet has a salad on the menu, so a search for “salad” on Foursquare or Yelp will turn up tons of places to eat with miserable greens. Some of my colleagues on the judging panel really liked the idea, but I was skeptical: I think established location services will add richness to their listings far faster than a startup can sign up users and populate their own database.
Foursquare is doing something clever along these lines, polling users within the app about places where they’ve checked in, like the price range or whether it’s good for dates. It would be pretty easy for the service to add labels like “paleo-friendly” or “good for salads” to the tips it already collects.
Next to exercise, judging is one of ReadWrite editor-in-chief Owen Thomas’s favorite activities.
OpenTable, the online-reservation service, already owns Foodspotting, a service for sharing photos and reviews of specific dishes at restaurants. It recently bought Ness, a service that mines data from Facebook, Foursquare, and other services to offer more granular dining recommendations.
Another Hackfit entrant, Happy Nutrition, proposed to find healthy recipes and then order up the necessary provisions from a delivery service like Instacart. I’m skeptical that there’s room to make money here, since delivery-service margins are already thin or nonexistent, but I’d be intrigued to see someone like MyFitnessPal, say, use the accumulated data about the food its users have logged to recommend shopping lists—and maybe tweak them to make them a bit healthier.
A Lot To Work Out
My main takeaway was that we have a lot of unsolved problems in health and wellness, from encouraging people to exercise to helping them choose the right foods. And I was inspired by how much progress Hackfit’s small teams made in a single weekend. As frustrated as I am by the inadequacies of many of today’s apps and devices, the event left me hopeful that we’ll see better solutions tomorrow—perhaps from unexpected quarters.