June 5, 2006

Runners Join Crowd of GPS Users

By Lucas van Grinsven, European Technology Correspondent

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - The Global Positioning System, already indispensable for soldiers, pilots and truck drivers, is now also useful for a run around the park.

The idea was born out of frustration, when Finnish inventor Ville Kampman found he was unable to measure his physical performance on a bumpy mountain bike trail. As a result, his company FRWD came up with a product that tracks distance, speed, altitude and heart rate.

Meanwhile in hilly Austin, Texas, thousands of miles away, Jon Werner was developing a similar GPS product that would measure the distance and elevation of jogging trails.

"Up to then, some people would first get into their cars in order to measure the distance they would run," said Werner, who co-founded Bones In Motion three years ago.

GPS can pinpoint a location down to a few meters (yards), using satellites. In recent years, it has been used by a handful of companies to provide athletes with information that used to be available only on treadmills and stationary bikes in a fitness center.

Fitness instruments make up a lucrative niche in the consumer electronics industry, with devices selling for hundreds of dollars. Some of the best-known names are Polar Electro from Oulu, near the Arctic Circle in the north of Finland, and Suunto, from the Finnish capital Helsinki.

Set up in 1977, Polar claims to be the world's leading producer of sports instruments and heart-rate monitoring equipment with sales of 161 million euros in 2004. Suunto, part of Amer Sports Corporation whose inventory includes diving watches, generated 72 million euros of 2005 sales.

Even though Polar and Suunto watches can count a runner's heartbeats and the number of calories burned, they cannot calculate the exact distance traveled. They can only provide estimates by using a sophisticated step counter.

The new Nike+iPod Sport Kit underlines that big electronics companies like Apple are discovering the opportunity, but it is still not much more than a pedometer.


GPS devices provide the solution to this critical gap of accuracy, but they are much bigger than the sleek wristwatches from Polar, which can also cost up to 560 euros (about US$728).

The first fitness device from GPS navigation company Navman from Auckland, New Zealand, resembles a triangle-shaped hockey puck that is strapped to the arm.

Garmin, a company best known for marine, hiking and road trackers, offers fitness devices with mobile phone-sized heart monitors, which cyclists mount on their handle bars.

The products are not cheap. FRWD's devices cost up to 429 euros while Garmin's top model retails for $433.

And, the demands of an athlete do not stop at GPS devices. Most runners also like to carry electronic items such as a music player and a mobile phone -- all of which serve to weigh them down physically as well as monetarily.

"Many women already carry a phone for security. Cyclists carry one, too, in case they strand with too many flats (tires). We wanted to put all the functions together in one small enough device," said Werner at Bones In Motion.

Werner designed his own GPS module with MP3 player and cell phone, but the product was too expensive. Fortunately, at about the same time, mobile phone makers began putting GPS modules into their phones under the 911 emergency directive.

In the United States, almost half of new phones come with a built-in GPS tracker. Since February, Bones In Motion has been offering Sprint customers fitness software for $9.99 a month.

"We planned to charge around $6, but a survey among 400 potential customers said they thought it was worth $10 a month. Runners are a great demographic target group. They're high income and gadget friendly," Werner said. Plans are under way to add a heart monitor strap.


Mobile phones, with their sizable displays and computing power, also offer the opportunity to add more functions. Bones In Motion is planning upgrades of its software which will allow a runner or cyclist to plot a course on a computer, download it to the phone and get navigation directions during the work-out.

Users can also share and download each other's routes.

The fitness niche is not lost on established mobile phone makers.

Market leader Nokia has announced its 5500 model and Sony Ericsson the W710 Walkman phone. Both can count steps and play music.

"This is going to be a big part of the market. The life style segment is rapidly growing," said Ben Wood, a director at Collins Consulting, which advises the mobile telecoms sector.

Bones In Motion is not the only software company benefiting from more advanced mobile phones. Privately owned mobile games producer Digital Chocolate from San Mateo, California, is offering Atkins 2 Go software, which consumers can use to keep track of their weight and diet.