Interview by Jamie Yellen with Peter Li
Examining the future of wearable technology, health, and fitness, through innovation and engagement.
While at Johns Hopkins, Peter Li developed a motivational platform for college students and faculty to help lose weight and gain muscle. He realized how valuable tracking the right data and the subsequent analysis was; yet he was frustrated by the lack of adequate data-driven and analytic solutions. At Philips Healthcare, Mike Kasparian learned how data could be used to literally save lives when designing circuitry for defibrillators. Alex Hsieh is passionate about software development that is embedded in microprocessors and learned what it takes to develop powerful software packages at Maxim Integrated. When these three powers combined they were able to develop an innovative idea to revolutionize health, wellness and fitness: they created Atlas—the future of wearable technology.
Atlas Wearables, the Fitness Wristband that Accurately Identifies and Tracks Workouts Based on Motion.
With a single on-wrist device, Atlas can track the body on the x-, y- and z-axes. It’s so precise, it can tell the difference between push-ups and triangle push-ups, bicep curls and alternating bicep curls and squats versus dead lifts. Atlas logs workouts with almost zero user action and keeps track of the user’s heart rate so you can see how each movement affects your body.
Atlas is packed with a suite of inertial sensors, similar to those used in smartphones. The Atlas sensors see motion in a 3D trajectory and identify the specific motion fingerprint of each exercise you’re doing. Atlas then sifts through a sea of data and picks out the pearls that are valuable to user.
CATALYST Review’s Managing Editor, Jamie Yellen, interviewed Peter Li, co-founder and CEO of Atlas Wearable to learn more about this innovative device. Jamie stumbled upon Atlas one day when browsing articles about fitness and technology. She was immediately drawn to Atlas’ data driven tracking approach and quickly reached out to Atlas for more information about developing the future of wearable technology, motivation, and fitness.
Catalyst: What distinguishes Atlas from other wearable fitness trackers? Not just the device, but the company as well?
Li: Our main focus is the in-gym experience. We really love what everyone else has done in terms of the day-to-day wear, such as tracking steps and understanding calories, but where our technology really shines is the ability to differentiate and identify for the user what specific exercise you’re doing. As a company we’re very data-driven. We believe that the extra specificity will really impact how wearable technology will change health and fitness by really letting people visualize their progress.
I know the word “innovative” is thrown around a lot; I would say it’s overused and almost trite now. A buzzword. But I certainly do think that what we’re doing here is going to change wearable devices and the features that people expect. Right now people spend hundreds of dollars on technology that is pretty much just a pedometer. We’re really looking to add as much value as possible into a similar form factor by providing much more data for the user’s in an effortless way.
Your company is located in Austin, TX, which is often referred to as a cultural hub and innovative cluster. How has working in this city affected your organization’s culture? Do you find inspiration in your surroundings?
Li: Absolutely. Austin has been incredible- we’ve been here for half a year now. A couple of big things about Austin influence us: One, the fitness community here is incredible. We get a lot of support from the local companies as well as local fitness enthusiasts: we get a lot of help from testing the platform, to building the exercise database; it’s been immensely useful. The second is the technology focus here- there’s so many great companies here. There’s a significant amount of tech talent here and it’s been great to meet people and learn from this community.
Catalyst: What made you decide to turn to Indiegogo, a crowdsourcing fundraising platform, and how did you launch a successful campaign?
Li: We launched on Indiegogo as part of the TechCrunch Hardware Battlefield, in which we were a finalist. It was the first crowdfunding platform we were on. The wonderful thing about starting a hardware company in this day and age is how incredibly useful the internet can be. Being able to tap into the fitness enthusiast community, to share our ideas and to really see how many people we can get help from in terms of the funding for the hardware development has been great. The platform from Indiegogo has been very helpful; we get a lot of reach through their network. I’m so happy that we shot past our initial goal and we’re going for the next stretch goal: which is waterproof— I can’t wait for that, I’m really excited about it and hope we can hit that goal soon.
There’s a lot of footwork behind the scenes that goes into a successful campaign. The preparation required in building your community before going to Indiegogo certainly helps us a lot. We’ve been able to reach out to a lot of the communities here as well as many national communities to create awareness that Atlas exists before launching our campaign definitely helps the momentum. It’s really a snowball effect once more people hear about it. We’ve certainly benefited from everyone helping us share and by referring their friends as well.
Catalyst: How is Atlas currently engaging with its users and the community? How will this change upon release Atlas’ release?
Li: Atlas employs a mix of both online and in-person user engagement. The advent of social media has helped a lot—being able to connect with customers anywhere; being able to understand what they are looking for and what their pain points are. We also engage in the real world, where we can reach out to different gyms, trainers, coaches, etc.
Something we’re looking to set up right now is this sort of maintenance and workflow messaging system that will allow us to continuously communicate with our backers. Its something we’re really looking towards improving as well— being able to give feedback as quickly as possible and to be able to respond to questions within a few hours. That goal definitely will be met. The great thing about social media is how quickly you can help people answer any questions that they have and really get everyone to understand our product much better.
Catalyst: What is your favorite feature of Atlas? What makes you most excited about your product and what do you think other people will be most excited about?
Li: That’s a great question. I’m personally really excited about this concept called “ghosting.” I played Mario Kart growing up. When you would race and get a personal record on a course it would automatically save the path that you took during the race, so when you race in the future you can race against yourself- its like a ghost of yourself. You essentially get the opportunity to race against your best self to see how you can improve, what you did that time, and check your accomplishments. From the perspective of the Atlas experience, we certainly think there’s a lot of promise with this. With the algorithmic engine we are really looking forward to being able to enable our users to understand what they did to achieve their personal record and then from there be able to compete against themselves— but not only themselves: their friends, their families, and professional athletics too, to be able to really gain an edge.
I’m also personally really looking forward to is getting to the next stretch goal to make Atlas more waterproof. Right now it’s designed for to be1 meter waterproof, which is great- you can shower with it and wash it under the sink. But we really believe that if we can accomplish this next goal and get Atlas to be 100 meters waterproof it would really change the usage. You literally wont have to worry about damage on Atlas anymore—you can run it through a washing machine or go deep dive swimming with it. We think mitigating the concern of “is my Atlas device going to break if I spend too much time in the pool?” will change how useful Atlas is.
Catalyst: What inspired you to create Atlas? How has the development process changed the product from its original concept?
Li: About two and half years or three ago I was helping a friend with a motivational platform. It was something we started at Hopkins where students and faculty could join together to burn fat, gain muscle, and just become more fit overall. We tested a couple of different things: extrinsic motivators such as iPads and iPhones, key motivational components where there was a sense of responsibility, and tracking your progress. It was really through that experience that we were able to find out how valuable being able to see your personal improvement is. And being able to understand that and see the progress, not just from a visual perspective but from a data perspective. Being able to understand how much power you generate each week, and then from there really being able to visualize and see yourself improve from a data point perspective.
We’ve gotten incredible feedback from early data gathering, outpost testers and participants. It certainly has shifted a little bit in focus in terms of usability and in terms of the user experience, and how the end-user will interact with Atlas. We’re working towards refining that even more before the product launches and we’re really looking to create a seamless and effortless experience. Once you get the Atlas out of the box you’ll be able to just go to the gym and begin using these features that we believe a lot of people have been dying for.
Catalyst: What would you like to see Atlas do in the future? How will you continue to innovate this product?
Li: The in-gym experience and the strength-training component are really just our first steps to all of fitness in general. Alex, our software developer, also used to swim competitively. Michael, my co-founder, used to play soccer competitively. We’re really excited how the flexibility of our analytic platform can really be applied to all types of athletic health in general. So from the strength-training component we’re certainly looking to expand the application of Atlas— to not only programs like CrossFit and Les Mills, but to football, and soccer, and swimming. To really be able to add this type of data gathering to as many health and fitness applications as possible with be revolutionary.
We also have the basic functionality that you would find in a pedometer. We think that there is certainly value for that, but from a long term perspective, once you know you take about 5000 steps per day—maybe its 6000 one day and maybe 4000 on Sunday. From the perspective of understanding what your basal metabolic rate is we think that Atlas will be really good for that— you would wear it maybe for one week 24/7, to get a gauge in what your average walking distance is, but the real interesting stuff will happen when you are in the gym.
Catalyst: Atlas seems geared towards athletes and fitness enthusiasts. What might motivate an average person to use Atlas? How will it help them to improve upon their lives?
Li: For someone who might not go to the gym a lot, or if it is their first time getting into the gym, one of the features of Atlas is Leader Mode. In this mode Atlas will be able to prompt you what exercises to do next. We really think this will help a lot of people get into the gym and help build good habits for their personal health. A lot of concern we have for people who don’t necessarily go to the gym regularly relates to not knowing what to do as a routine. We think the Leader Mode will enable these people. The Leader Mode should be able to guide anyone new to the gym through a regular routine where the exercises can be preset, or you can also browse recommended routines that our personal trainer community is building. Hopefully it will help simplify things for some people.
Catalyst: Does Atlas have any plans to build a user community? How does it plan to engage this community?
Li: We’re developing a pretty cool user interface, actually, with a motivational component that will be very adaptive. From the social interaction perspective we see a lot of apps right now that, in my personal opinion, slap on the social component very haphazardly. Where they’re like “ alright, we’re going to add social” and really all you can do is share your workouts with your friends—and that’s great, and is an integral part of fitness apps and solutions in general—but we’re really looking to take it further. We want to enable are users to be able to do more than just share the conclusions of their workouts. We want people to share what their routines are. We want to enable people to comment, and to test out other people’s regiments, and from there really help build community. Really to create a platform where the community can crowdsource the concepts of what workouts are good, what workouts work for people with a certain condition, and what works for a person with a specific type of athletic background.
From a health perspective we think that nutrition, your fitness and also your sleep really build the foundation of your health. Unfortunately for the first release we don’t have the manpower to be able to incorporate our own nutritional component, but nutritional integration with other apps is something we’re looking at. It’s also something we want to build into the Atlas family down the road.
Catalyst: Are there any plans for an Atlas application? What might this app look like and how might it differ from other fitness apps currently on the market?
Li: Atlas will launch with its own app. You don’t have to use existing apps, but we realize that a lot of people have existing data and a report on existing platforms, and want to be able to continue with that. So not only will Atlas ship with its own app, which is inclusive of all the features that you would be looking from an app, but also will be able to sync your results to Map My Fitness or whichever app you like; its already integrated into that.
Peter Li is co-founder and CEO of Atlas Wearables. While at Johns Hopkins, Peter developed a motivational platform for college students and faculty to lose weight and gain muscle. He realized how valuable tracking the right data and subsequent analysis is.
He holds a Master of Science degree in Engineering, Bioengineering and Tissue Engineering from Johns Hopkins.