A brief history of tracking
The innovative first steps that birthed a biometric craze
We track our activities all the time. Whether we’re calculating our monthly outgoings or stepping on a weighing scale, we seek validation in numbers because we can measure and compare them against each other, gleaning insights that we can then use to steer our behaviour in targeted ways.
This habit of quantification has been amplified by recent advances in electronic sensors, which have gotten smaller and better at recording biometric data. One of the first breakthroughs came in the mid-90s, when University of Alabama engineering professor Ken Fyfe developed a runner’s speedometer for his own personal use. Fyfe designed accelerometers to fit into a plastic insert in his shoe, and which wirelessly transmitted his distance covered and average speed to a wristwatch. He perfected the system using algorithms to produce more meaningful data, and the sensor soon became a hit with like-minded runners. Fyfe built a company called Dynastream around his biometric wearable, and in 2006 sold the business to Garmin for a cool $36 million.
The same year saw Nike collaborate with Apple to create an activity-tracking shoe sensor accessory for iPod users, called Nike+. A year later, Apple ushered in the smartphone revolution with the iPhone, and people began carrying around powerful accelerometer-equipped computers in their pockets. In 2008, the iPhone 3G added GPS; meanwhile social media caught on, and sharing everything fast became the norm.
These advances, together with the increased integration of mobile networks and cloud-based services, liberated the potential for quantitative self-measurement, leading to wearable consumer devices and activity-tracking apps, and an explosion in shareable data on our moods, diets, fitness and health.
The always-on-hand nature of smartphones means that modern desktop computers now offer limited appeal for biometric trackers, with the most popular tools existing as browser-based interfaces that act as remote dashboards for mobile-tethered tracking accessories.
As a result, only a handful of decent Mac fitness apps have survived the mobile advance (see right), because iOS and devices like the iPhone and Apple Watch are where tracking is at.
In 2008, the iPhone 3G added GPS; meanwhile social media caught on and sharing everything, became the norm
Apple teamed up with Nike to develop the Nike+, one of the first activity trackers to become commercially available.