There Are No Easy Answers When It Comes To Hardware In Fitness Startups

I had the opportunity to speak with Jacob Rothman, co-founder of Perch, about the challenges of developing better fitness hardware technology. Perch aims to bring its users information about “the quality of their movement and what they can do to move faster, stronger, more efficiently, and with less pain.”

Frederick Daso: Why use a camera to track a person versus sensor-based equipment?

Jacob Rothman: I guess it would depend on the shape of the sensor, but fundamentally it’s all about quality of movement. A single sensor, for instance, an accelerometer in the form of a wearable device, can only collect an insufficient set of data. You’re not getting an entire picture of the quality of movement. Right now, the data we are receiving is pretty necessary. We mainly look at an image, pick out the barbell in the picture, and we can tell you your sets, reps, velocity and power output. You might be able to do that with just an individual accelerometer, but that doesn’t give you the ability to scale into other movements.

For instance, what if you want to track dumbbell curls, which are using both hands? What if you’re going to follow joint angles to monitor an individual’s form? You can’t do all these things with just one sensor, and you need either multiple sensors or embedded sensors in each device that you are using. We felt a camera-based system was the best way to collect all this data and to scale into this future company vision that we have, which is creating a digitally connected gym.

We call it connected strength, which is a great user experience when you go in and instead of recording everything with a pen and paper, or using an app to enter your data manually, you’re able to walk in and effortlessly record all this data. It’s not just data about what you do; it’s data about how well you’re doing it. What’s your power output? What’s your form look like? Gathering data to answer these questions is effortless with a camera-based system.

Daso: An exciting phrase you mentioned in your answer was ‘quality of movement.’ Can you define that for me? What are some of the factors encapsulated in the term ‘quality of movement’?

Rothman: Of course. When I pitched the company, we draw a parallel between aerobic activity and weightlifting, because a lot of people understand how fitness technology can be applied to aerobic exercise. Usually, when you go running with a Fitbit or an Apple Watch, you get information regarding how far you ran, how long it took you to run that distance, what’s your heart rate was, and other additional insights. When you go to the gym, the only information that you have access to is your sets, repetitions, and how much weight you lifted. The parallel between that and running is that you go on a run, and the only information you get is how far you ran. You wouldn’t have access to any other information.

When you go into the weight room, you have insufficient information regarding the work you did, but you don’t know how well you did that work. The quality of movement could have been strong, explosive, not putting yourself at risk of injury. Or you could have been exhausted and barely moving the weight, which means you’re not getting what you should be out of the workout. Also, you could be putting yourself at risk of injury.

The variables we look at in quality of movement would be power output, your velocity and your form. What we focus on right now is the velocity of each lift. That is the application of our technology among elite weightlifters in velocity-based training. Like I said earlier, most coaches only have access to the three pieces of information, the sets, the reps, and the weight lifted. A lot of coaches want access to how fast the athlete lifted the weight.

When you intuitively think about it, the more tired an athlete is, the more slowly they are going to raise the weights, or the lighter the weight is, the faster they lift it. Quality of movement allows a coach to understand better how an athlete is performing in the weight room on a given day, and then tailor the weight to help them to lift optimally.

Daso: Is velocity-based training a new trend in elite weightlifting? Or is this a style of training that you’ve just discovered, and Perch fits well into leading this new movement in weightlifting?

Rothman: Velocity-based training is a new training methodology. There’s been a lot of strength conditioning research that is going into it. Strength conditioning research, like nutrition research, is notoriously difficult to get useful information. You have small sample sizes. You can’t do longitudinal studies; there’s a bunch of compounding variables. Still, there is more research going into how velocity can be used to improve the health and performance of athletes better. We did a lot of market research and understood that strength-conditioning coaches wanted to know how fast their athletes were lifting.

Velocity-based training is something more and more coaches are going into, as it’s been around for about fifteen years. The original technology being used to track this data is a string connected to a barbell, and it tells you how fast you pulled the line. Some of these products are very expensive and have a poor user experience. We’re focused on giving them a better user experience and more than velocity such as other metrics we’ve talked about with Perch.

Daso: You mentioned in one of our previous conversations that Perch already has a customer. How has the customer responded to using Perch? Have they seen any improvement in their players’ performance in the gym?

Rothman: It’s hard to tell right now. We just installed it this week. Nate, one of my co-founders, is still at the customer site, making sure the installation is going smoothly. A big goal of ours is to quantify the type of value that we are providing. There’s some way that we can prove that people are getting faster or injuries getting reduced, that’s what we would define as real success. Subjectively, the feedback has been excellent. Our customer has used our competitor’s products in the past and has replaced them with our technology. We are still learning a lot as we are going.

Daso: Could Perch be used for physical therapy as well?

Rothman: That’s a follow-on market that we have explored a bit, but not entirely. For rehabilitation, there’s a couple of different things you could do. Say someone is playing football, and they know how much weight they are lifting or what their metrics were before they got injured. If you have Perch, as they are rehabbing, you can see how their strength is improving over time, and you can use that as a return to play protocol to look when they are ready to start playing again.

This article was lightly edited for clarity.

If you enjoyed this article, feel free to check out my other work on LinkedIn and my personal website, Follow me on Twitter @fredsoda, on Medium @fredsoda, and on Instagram @fred_soda.

This work was first published on Forbes.

Forbes Under 30 Contributor, 2016 LinkedIn Top Voice, Venture Fellow at Rough Draft Ventures

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