CB Garrett Field Test — How mainstream wearable tech can change the fitness industry

For my field test, I wanted to see how journalists can use wearable technology to benefit their readers in a niche fitness market, as wearable technology becomes more mainstream and available to the public. Trackers such as Fitbit and other simple trackers such as step counters have seen large rises in popularity.

The technology for these devices has become readily available to the open market and the price point has dropped into the range of about $100 to $150, which makes it a solid investment to some fitness enthusiasts. While the price of commercial wearable technology still remains in the thousands, like everything else, there will become a time when the price point drops to wear the public will be able to afford the technology. With help from Syracuse Basketball and their strength and conditioning coach Ryan Cabiles, I tested the Zephyr heart rate sensor while playing pickup basketball and see if it can be something that can become mainstream for an average athlete trying to stay healthy.

The first thing that I had to get started was pick one of the specially made Zephyr shirts. The shirts are designed to be skin tight and also hold the heart rate sensor at the middle off the chest. The reason for them being tight is that any movement of the shirt moves the monitor and can cause inaccurate measurements. As someone who has never really worn a sleeveless undershirt when playing basketball, it was a little uncomfortable. I usually wear an XL shirt, but had to size down to a large so it fit well. Due to some complications which will be talked about later, the test was performed a second day, wearing a size large tall shirt. There are black strips on the shirt that you can see in the picture below that lead into the sensor that read heart rate and breathing. They are very tight on the ribs and make the shirt uncomfortable. The large tall fit a little better, but was too tall for me so I had to fold it upwards. This is important for users to realize as they try to find a shirt to wear with these types of monitors, is that they might take a while to get used to and that sizing is important. Here is a picture of me wearing the shirt – after a day of pickup really messed with my hair.

The first day we tried the test we tried using the non-live mode of the sensors, but had an issue with data upload later. This is something for users to keep mind. One of the biggest difficulties that these types of sensor could have for translating for general fitness use is that if it has issue with non-live mode, then it would be difficult to use for runners. For live mode, there are two boxes that send signals out to the sensors and allow the information to be displayed on a computer as seen below (I was using Braedon Bayer’s sensor, as they are set to one person at a time). If live mode is needed, it would confine the space of the workout to the reach of the boxes, something unpractical for distance runners. For non-live mode, it gathers information to be uploaded later, which if functioning, would allow it to work for them. Here is an example of what the screen looks like when tracking in live mode; if you click on the picture you can see it in full resolution.

From there I went out and played basketball. We ended up playing pickup for 72 minutes, and played five games. I sat out one of the games due to numbers, so averaging it out I was on the court for about 60 minutes. During the actual on court action there were very few issues. The shirt eventually didn’t bother me as much, but it definitely was not as comfortable as normally playing pickup. The one thing I would worry about is if I took an elbow to the sensor, but that is not a situation that came up during either time I played pickup.

After pickup was complete, I removed the sensor from the shirt. The sensor looks as follows:

The shirt then washed in a normal cold wash, but needs to be hang dried to avoid the area that holds the sensor from getting worn down. With the help of the strength and conditioning coach, I then almost immediately was able to see my data on my workout. This is one of the stronger features of Zephyr. With exception of the difficulties we had with trying to use the sensors in non-live mode, the data input was quick and easy. It also downloads into an Excel file, which allows you to track workouts over an extended period of time.

Since I only performed one workout session and was only one person I could not use this feature, but it automatically color coats different cells based on the standard deviations against other workouts. It also generates a useful chart for see (Note there was a 4 minute warmup session that it is comparing to for this average that makes the workout seem so far above average). If you click on the picture you can see it in full resolution and see each category that is tracked.

Some of the data that was most interesting to me was that I burned nearly 700 calories during my workout. Considering I was only on the court for 60 minutes — and was on the court for longer two or three days out of six last week – it means that I am burning around 1,000 or more calories frequently when I am playing pickup. For someone who does not drink a lot of water during the time when we are actually playing, it shows just how important it is to both rehydrate and refuel. This helps justify that my daily calorie intake is usually much over the usually recommended 2,000 – 2,500 and how throughout high school I always struggled to put on weight.

Another interesting thing was that I took over 7,000 steps during the time that I played pickup. Having never worn a step counter such as FitBit before, I have no idea if this is an above average number, but it does seem a little high. I was also able to raise my max heart rate during the workout to 170, which seems like a good number for high level exercise for someone my age.

Overall I think that if the Zephyr drops in price point, it is something that could be used by the common athlete. It is not as difficult to use as some of the other wearable technology and can provide quick feedback on information such as heartrate, steps, calories, and with the right auxiliary equipment, breathing rate. I think it is also something that can be used in the media as well as part of a Runner’s World type publication. Even as prices drop, people do not want to spend money on technology that doesn’t work or help them much. There will be interest among readers to have these publications “field test” these sensors and help determine which sensors and wearable technology provide the best bang for your buck and might be useful to the advancement of fitness for the user. Once the sensors are in more common in the hands of more everyday people, they will still look upon these fitness type magazines to explain which data and statistics can be useful to the athlete, as well as tips to get as much information and use as possible.