How Tech Companies Are Translating Your Physical Activity Into Digital Rewards

The best way to catch a rabbit is with a carrot.

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Jan 24 2017, 1:00pm

Image: Simon Mayer/Shutterstock

The rap against technology is that it isolates us—that it prevents us from going outside and interacting with the "real world" at large. And technophobes tend to state their displeasure in deductive terms—"Put away your phone," "Unplug"—as though technology alone was the obstacle to balanced living.

Sedentarism is more about the attitude and the motivation than the means. And technology companies are encouraging users to get off their couches by building real-world incentives into their ware. By giving consumers various rewards for travel, the hope is that beyond the initial hook, long-term benefits will follow.

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Image: WalkTo

Tech companies can use incentives to encourage consumers' healthy habits. For example, startup company Fitrock will be debuting an app called WalkTo to the public this spring, which will encourage its users to explore their neighborhoods by walking. In return, they will receive incentives by walking to businesses who sign up for the app. A deli, for example, might offer a free cup of coffee to users who walk to its location. A yoga studio might offer a free class. A pizzeria could offer a discount on a regular slice.

The CEO of Fitrock, Rich Svinkin, conceived of the WalkTo app from personal experience. Svinkin, by his own admission, was severely overweight—a byproduct of working from home and living a sedentary lifestyle; he would be more likely to go to the fridge to get food than go to the store. This is hardly a unique problem. Over 68 percent of Americans are classified as overweight or obese, and that number goes even higher when Americans are split along gender lines; 74 percent of American men are considered overweight or obese.

Of course there are always New Year's resolutions. There are always purchases of exercise machines and trackers. But those methods takes a disciplined mindset to stick to.

"I didn't consider myself to be obese," said Svinkin. "I didn't think I had a chronic medical condition, but technically speaking, I did."

And that, according to Svinkin, is the problem. Most regimented weight loss plans focus on the obesity itself, which creates a negative feedback loop; the last thing an obese person wants to think about is his or her obesity.

Instead, the focus should be on something tangentially related, such as distance walked or, in the case of WalkTo, the reward to be earned.

"I spent eight years in health tech," Svinkin said, "and a lot of the apps in technology do a poor job of changing the conversation [from negative to positive]."

Svinkin, now 50 pounds lighter, hopes that the WalkTo app will encourage consumers to adopt healthy habits. And ideally, the healthy lifestyle would follow from there.

"It's about the little decisions," says Svinkin. "If we can get you to walk, we can put you on the correct path. Then, it's easier to make fitter decisions."

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Image: Fitbit

Tech companies can also use incentives to forge mutually beneficial partnerships with other tech companies. In the middle of last year, 2K Games, which publishes popular basketball simulator NBA 2K17, came to Fitbit with a proposal—to tie real world activity to in-game incentives.

Fitbit agreed, and starting on November 25 of last year, NBA 2K17 players could connect their Fitbit trackers to the game, which would incentivize their real world steps. 10,000 steps would create a customized boost to the player's in-game avatar—'agility' and 'dunks,' for example—which would wear off after playing five games. The player would then have to walk 10,000 more steps to gain the same boost. Which would last for five games. Which would then wear off again. Lather, rinse, repeat.

The response to this real world to virtual world initiative has been positive—Alfie Brody, VP of Marketing for NBA 2K, says that tens of thousands of people have connected their Fitbit trackers to NBA 2K17 since launch. The consistency of usage has held steady since launch—the average consumer walks and assigns the boost, on average, three to four times a week. NBA 2K players are a dedicated fanbase.

"Not only have we seen current Fitbit owners opt into the program, but we've also seen an uptick in Fitbit hardware sales," says Brody.

As for NBA 2K18, which is currently in its initial planning phases, Brody envisions partnering with wearable fitness once again. In many ways, the current partnership is an appetizer for what's to come.

"This was by design a very simple integration," says Brody. "We didn't want to try to do too much at once. And based on the feedback, we'd like to do this again going forward. We just have to figure out what that looks like."


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And lastly, companies can use incentives to enlist consumers as data collectors. That data can then be used to create products that best serve the public. This month, Agero, a roadside assistance provider for car companies such as Ford, Toyota, and Progressive, launched a free app called MileUp, which tracks the number of miles that a consumer drives. The driver is then rewarded on a points system with Amazon, Nike, or Target gift cards; each mile traveled corresponds to a specific number of points, which then converts to a specific number of dollars.

The driving data that Agero is collecting will help the company create responsive crash detection in the future.

"[The goal is] an app that will detect a crash in real time, enabling EMTs to respond in less than 30 seconds," says Christina DeRosa, Agero Chief Product & Marketing Officer.

The average time that it currently takes for an EMT to become aware of a vehicular accident—not even arrive at the scene, but simply be informed of the incident—is seven minutes in a rural area and three minutes in an urban area. By cutting that response time to 30 seconds, Agero has the potential to save 3000 lives a year.

Agero has over three million miles logged into their system—they hope to log three million more in the next four months order to verify the efficacy of their findings. Developed properly, this app could even have the potential to distinguish between a minor fender bender and a more serious crash, as well as flag roads that are at risk for accidents.