Health and Fitness Going High Tech

At this week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, there will be no shortage of couch- worthy TVs, many now in 3D, plus devices to help you relax and rest. But this could also be the year that fitness goes high tech, as the show is including a Sports and Technology summit, and has included a fitness tech zone into the mix.

Photo: AP

This follows a growing trend in exercise related video games, including the recently released Microsoft Xbox 360 Kinect and PlayStation Move. And with Best Buy soon to include fitness- related products in 600 of its stores nationwide, there seems to be very much a movement in place towards healthier electronic products.

“This isn’t really a new change,” says Steve Smith, editor-in-chief of the consumer electronics industry trade magazine TWICE. “Fitness has been part of the Japanese scene for a while, and this is just the latest evolution of what the consumer electronics retailers can carry. It is good for them because they need to find other categories that can be profitable.”

CES 2011 - Your Digital Life - A CNBC Special Report
CES 2011 - Your Digital Life - A CNBC Special Report

Smith believes that instead of being just a fad—much like the fitness VHS tapes from the 1980s —this new trend will actually become commodities for the consumer electronics industry as whole.

“Best Buy tries to expand and try new things,” says Smith. “This is another way for them to get people into the store.”

Getting those people into the store might even begin from the very top down, says Consumer Electronics Association President Gary Shapiro.

“God bless Michelle Obama. She’s trying to get Americans in shape, and people are starting to listen. As a result fitness is a new segment of the CE industry, and it is definitely a growth industry. Fitness is going to be huge.”

One sector that is already on the way to becoming huge is video games. Nintendo started the ball rolling when it released the Wii in late 2006. It revolutionized gameplay by actually making players move to control the on-screen action. This year, Sony and Microsoft entered the “motion control” arena with their PlayStation Move and Xbox 360 Kinect respectively. According to an IDC study from September, of all connected consoles, fitness was among the top eight categories, a figure that will likely rise as Sony and Microsoft have now entered the market.

“The Wii reset the debate around motion in gaming,” says Lewis Ward, Research Manager for Consumer Markets at research firm IDC. “It has gotten people off the couch and has driven people to Best Buy and Wal-Mart .”

Ward says that in addition to potentially helping users’ waistlines, these systems can help the bottom line, too.

Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect, a gesture-recognition controller – a camera that is able to detect subtle movements and sounds from players.
Source: Microsoft
Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect, a gesture-recognition controller – a camera that is able to detect subtle movements and sounds from players.

“A lot of the fitness games do require a lot of accessories,” adds Ward, noting that one of the most popular fitness related add-ons for the Nintendo Wii was the Balance Board. “Ten million or more were sold worldwide. That opened a lot of eyes.”

The move towards fitness devices is also happening as electronic devices continue to get cheaper, whilst being able to handle greater processing power and do more in less space.

“Only a few years ago electronics in general were luxury items and they were somewhat unusual,” says Stephen Baker, Vice President of Industry Analysis for the NPD Group. “Today a computer and flat panel TV is practically ubiquitous. This gives fitness a real opportunity to be a growth sector. This isn’t a market union of just five million people anymore; it is now a market union of 100 million people.”

The other growth area for consumer electronics, say some of the industry watchers, is health, one that is actually grouped with fitness but really is its own category. As Baby Boomers age, and possibly use less fitness products and potentially more healthcare products, this related category could be another boom sector of the industry.

“There is health and fitness, and they’re grouped together, but there is really a growing interest in the health market,” says Dr. Mike Foley, Executive Director of the Bluetooth Special Interests Group. He believes that both fitness and health offer a huge growth opportunity for the Bluetooth wireless technology. “We have barely scratched the surface on what Bluetooth can do.”

He says that it offers greater interoperativity of devices and products from different manufacturers. “With Bluetooth you’ll be able to buy products that work with other brands, whether it be mobile phones, tablet PCs, printers or computers.”

On the health care front, he sees growth with monitoring devices that can allow caregivers and patients access to data wirelessly, and via computer and Internet connections from great distances.

“Let’s face it, Baby Boomers are getting older,” says Smith. “They need testers and equipment and this opens new possibilities for apps for the iPhone and other smartphones.”

And New Year’s is a good time to launch these new categories of consumer electronics products.

“I think the time of the Best Buy announcement is perfect, along with showing the products at CES. It is just after the holidays when people have over indulged,” says Smith. “They’re watching the bowl games and they see the ads for exercising products and think about getting in shape and think about their health. So it is twofold for the retailers. It gets them in the store and gets customers already there to buy things.”

Look for CNBC's in-depth reports from CES 2011 online and on-air, Wednesday, January 5 through Friday, January 7.

CES 2011 - Your Digital Life - A CNBC Special Report
CES 2011 - Your Digital Life - A CNBC Special Report