A Virtual Fitness Ladder for Local Boutiques and Gyms

Connected Fitness

The last few years have seen the majority of local fitness brands venture into the digital space by necessity.  At Tribe, we’ve talked with everyone from single location studios to brands with thousands of locations, and there’s a great deal of diversity in what owners have been trying.

In this article, we’ll talk about the ladder of virtual fitness - from first steps and low, tactical investment up to a strategic decisions about what the future of omni-channel fitness might look like.  We’ll then describe what Tribe is building, and how it brings all the different elements together in an ambitious platform to empower local studios and gyms to level up their virtual and interactive fitness experiences with their members.

Although this is a ladder of increasing interactivity and production quality, as a studio, you can pick the level you’re most comfortable with and what options correlate to your modality and brand identity.  At Tribe, our goal is to support every fitness creator - from a local single location with 200 members looking for a low-cost Zoom upgrade up to a national franchise brand looking to go head to head in connected fitness with the big names like Peloton and Mirror.

Step 1 - Generic Video

The first step for most smaller brands and individual coaches as creators has been to use well known video platforms with a basic setup.  This might mean:

  • Zoom with an iPhone or laptop and DSLR camera for live classes.
  • Facebook or Instagram for publicly accessible video clips or classes (on-demand).
  • Vimeo with exercise videos, potentially behind some type of pay wall or just freely accessible (again, on-demand).

Studios can spend somewhere between $0 and $1,000 to get going on step 1, and it does check the box for something on digital, but the experience is basic:

  • The amateur production quality of Zoom classes often doesn’t jive well with the premium brand identity of boutiques, and the same is true for on-demand videos shot from handheld iPhones or with minimal lighting and editing.
  • For on-demand, you are competing with a near infinite quality of free workout videos on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and other platforms.
  • Live and on-demand are typically separate (due to Zoom quality issues), meaning that many studios have to shoot content twice.
  • There’s also no metrics, overlays, gamification or anything else a member might be accustomed to in Peloton, Apple Fitness+, FitOn etc.  Or the group energy from in-studio group classes.

Some tips for this upgrading level are:

  • To use the latest smartphones (iPhone and Android) with better cameras.
  • Use an auto-follow smartphone camera stand, particularly the OSBOT ME for it’s superior AI tracking and support for any mobile streaming app.
  • Steer towards mirrorless cameras designed for Vlogging, like the Sony ZV-1, that have high quality autofocus as they’re designed to have no “behind the camera” operators.

At Tribe we don’t compete in this category because we are only focused on the fitness ecosystem, but we can deliver a better virtual fitness experience than any of these generic platforms.

Step 2 - Fitness Video

The second step is often trying technical solutions targeting virtual fitness, for example:

  • IntervalCam - a plug-in for Zoom that lets the coach specify exercise names and countdown clocks as an overlay on top of Zoom.
  • Intelivideo - on-demand only video hosting solution, but it has member billing and the context of the product is all about fitness.
  • Mindbody - essentially two separate offerings, a white labeled version of a video chat clone of Zoom, and an on-demand video library.  Of course, this has tight integration with Mindbody’s own member management software, as well as more specific categories and other labels for the fitness space.

The main downsides here are:

  • Live and on-demand video is still separate, so studios have to create 2X the content.
  • Live video quality (production and picture / audio) is still relatively low compared to Peloton live classes and prerecorded content.
  • For higher production quality (e.g. multiple camera angles) in on-demand video, you have to hire a production crew, and that significantly increases the cost per class.
  • Still no metrics or gamification - it’s just video, more like Beachbody of old and less like the new breed of interactive digital fitness led by Peloton.

Some tips for this level are:

  • Look up more professional auto-follow cameras, like the ones from Aver, which can track the coach left and right, up and down as well as zooming in and out.
  • Try setting Apple Fitness+ and other challenges to keep members motivated.

At Tribe we support live and on-demand video in a single platform, starting at $49 per month, but we add more advanced features listed below into the user experience at the same price point.  Our recently launched class templates allow a coach to easily create class timelines, segments and countdown clocks, similar to IntervalCam, but included in the core product.

Step 3 - Gamification

A third step up the ladder is adding some gamification with metrics, for example:

  • Myzone - adds metrics on top of Zoom so you can see a heart-rate based leaderboard during live classes in it’s MZ-Remote product.
  • Accuro - combines heart rate metrics and leaderboards with Zoom and other video streaming services.
  • Exer - their Exer Studio product combines computer vision looking at movement with video classes on Zoom to grade participants based on form analysis.
  • Momentum (formerly Motosumo) - this is bordering on connected fitness, but they can connect to heart rate trackers and also detect RPM in spin from the user phone on the bike, then show leaderboards etc.

This is a significant step up from “just video”, in that it becomes more interactive, versus the fake feeling of success when some coach says “great job” as you lie on your couch watching the video.  Some of the downsides though:

  • By itself, gamification doesn’t address the video quality challenges of Zoom, or that live and on-demand content is not integrated.
  • Typically these systems all work for live classes, but don’t work for replays on-demand, like some of the digital fitness pure plays (Peloton, Mirror, etc).
  • The user experience is often not very integrated - the metrics are often completely separate to the video interface as opposed to being overlaid in a single experience.
  • Given the video content and the metrics aren’t tied together, the challenges and competitions are often more basic and short-lived versus the gamification masters like Zwift.

Of course, not all metrics are relevant to all forms of workout - heart rate can be useful in cardio, but is far less so in strength workouts and yoga.  However, in almost every workout modality, there is some metric or gamification strategy that can be employed, especially when combined with connected fitness.  It’s amazing the effort that members put in to beat their personal record or earn a new badge in say Apple Fitness+.

Tribe supports more heart rate monitors than any other fitness platform we have found (Bluetooth straps, Apple Watch, Samsung Watch, Wear OS e.g. Fossil, Fitbit watches and Garmin watches).

We are working with partners for other types of metrics, for example with Asensei on form analysis (see below).  Our leaderboards work great both live and on-demand, they are also integrated with the whole visual experience versus being separate to the video window.  Beyond just metrics, we’re adding in points, programs, challenges, badges and other incentives to up the ante on gamification.

Step 4 - Community

Fitness boutiques have great community in their in-studio classes, but their virtual classes often have far less feeling of community.  There are vendors trying to help with this:

  • FitGrid - in addition to their Zoom link orchestration, they have class apps that lets members see other members' profiles, and which members each member tends to work out with (classmates).
  • Facebook - it’s free and the world is using it, so many studios have active Facebook groups or pages for their members to take selfies and high five each other.

Everyone can benefit from a bit of community, but by itself, it doesn’t address:

  • Video quality issues, or the split between live content and on-demand content.
  • Gamification with metrics, and typically any gamification doesn’t integrate with the community platform unless they have been designed to interoperate.

The big digital fitness providers like Peloton and Zwift have designed from the ground up to integrate their own metrics with their community as part of a holistic user experience.

At Tribe we already allow members to see community leaderboards with group metrics, and our participant videos let members see their friends working out with them both synchronously (live) and asynchronously (on-demand).  Over the coming months we will be adding in more community features as we continue to build out our roadmap.

Step 5 - High Quality Production

One of the challenges for local studios and gyms is the cost of raising production quality in their fitness video content.  There’s several pieces to this:

  • Video quality - finding a live video platform with good enough video picture quality as well as audio / video sync that recordings can be used as on-demand assets as well (Zoom isn’t it).
  • Multi-camera - having one camera through the whole class is boring, but having multiple camera angles can require a TV crew there to produce it, which significantly increases the cost per workout.  If you are Peloton, Fiit, Apple etc you don’t care (and some of them don’t really shoot live anyways), but local studios don’t have the budget to hire TV crews on a regular basis.
  • Audio - generally, you would be better with the music tracks being separate from the coach microphone audio, and allow the levels to be adjusted by each participating member to his/her own tastes.

There are a few vendors helping with this:

  • Mevo - a broad market (not just fitness) multi-camera solution that also supports auto-switching between the cameras, with a three camera starter pack at $999.
  • Blackmagic - the ATEM Mini and related products start at $299 and are great value.  They support recording macros (copying what a user does) for switching between camera inputs.
  • Ecamm - a pure software solution for Mac that is relatively inexpensive ($16 or $32 per month).  It supports programing switching between cameras, and is designed for Vlogging cameras.  Switcher Studio is similar, but for iPad.
  • multiCAM - a hardware rack mount solution designed for group meetings where it switches the camera based on who’s talking, it’s in the [thousands of dollars] range.  1 Beyond is similar.
  • Forte - a fitness specific multi-camera solution that starts at around $10K for setup and then costs $5 per member per month.

There are downsides with using systems not designed for fitness in group classes:

  • Many are far too technical for a typical fitness coach, and are more designed for studio techs or Twitch gamers who geek out over all the options.
  • Mevo and similar systems are proprietary, and their cameras are not the right focal length or high enough quality for fitness classes.
  • They typically support higher quality video capture, but do not have participant video integrated, like in Zoom.
  • Audio is not split out - it’s a single stream with stereo audio.

At Tribe we bring various pieces of the puzzle together to solve for high quality production in group fitness classes:

  • We use high quality, low latency coach video streaming - full HD (1080) at 30 frames per second with audio in sync (the opposite of Zoom).
  • We are launching support for automated multi-camera production in February 2022 using our I-Switch - a hardware appliance at $995 supporting up to 4 cameras via HDMI input, including auto-tracking cameras.
  • Uniquely, we allow multi-camera behavior to be linked to class timelines and types, so you get more ceiling cam while doing mat exercises, or slower transitions in warm ups and yoga classes than in HIIT.

The goal has to be that it’s as easy as hitting “Start Class” for the coach, but the result looks like an Apple Fitness+ class (just with more interactivity and community gamification).

Step 6 - Connected

This is the top of the ladder, and typically requires the greatest investment by the studio or gym (though we expect that upfront investment to decrease in size over time).  At Tribe we’ve hit use cases and demoed solutions like:

  • Connected boxing - having a boxing bag that detects punches and punching force, we demoed this at IHRSA in October in partnership with Eggplant.  Like FightCamp but as a platform.
  • Connected yoga - we’re working with Asensei as they have teamed up with Virus International on connected clothing, to detect form and automatically coach their members.  There really isn’t a compelling direct to consumer connected offering in Yoga right now, but next year there will be.  YogiFi has tried with a connected mat, and Peloton acquired Otari earlier this year.
  • Connected cardio - bikes, treadmills, rowers, trampolines - we have heard requirements for all of them, and FiTness Machine Service (FTMS) is a new data standard making connected cardio (and strength) easier to implement.
  • Connected strength - MAXPRO, TRX and more - analogous to Tonal and Forme among others.

Up to now, there hasn’t really been a connected fitness platform designed for studios and gyms to use with their members.  All the major connected fitness providers have focused on direct to consumer models with upfront hardware and subscriptions tied into proprietary walled gardens - like Peloton, Tonal, Forme, Hydrow, FightCamp, etc.

This has meant that the level of investment required to take a shot at connected fitness has been very high, requiring an integrator like SweatWorks to build a custom solution from low level building blocks.  But times, they’re a-changing:

  • Zwift has already demonstrated that you could build a successful connected fitness community without creating any hardware - they just worked with Wahoo, TacX and other smart bike hardware manufacturers.
  • Vendors like ShapeLog have partnered with fitness brands like Life Fitness to introduce connected fitness options for people to build apps on.
  • Virus International is creating high quality connected fitness clothing, but not trying to lock that clothing into a proprietary offering, so studios can build content services on top of the clothing.
  • The Bluetooth enabled sensors to embed in much of the connected fitness equipment are reducing in cost (to around $10 per package at volume) from offshore vendors like Eggplant.
  • We expect FTMS to become a big deal in interoperability - Matrix, True Fitness and others are adopting it as a standard, and even direct to consumer companies like Whipr are advertising FTMS support to highlight interoperability with other apps.  FTMS allows apps to read data from fitness equipment (speed, cadence, resistance, weight etc) and to control them (raise the gradient for going uphill in the class, etc).

Just as the Apple Watch opened up health data to an ecosystem of third party apps (forcing Fitbit and Garmin to give up on their walled gardens), at Tribe we believe that connected fitness will become more pervasive centered around open standards, and that should be exciting news for studios and boutique brands thinking about how to upgrade their at-home and digital offerings.

As Tribe launches its connected fitness platform in increments during 2022, we will create a new category to empower fitness entrepreneurs around the world, leveling the playing field so the best brands, personalities and content can win.

The Bottom Line

We see a future for omni-channel fitness in which the in-studio experience and at-home experience for a boutique’s members can have the same community, challenges, metrics and connected experience.  Selecting the right platform can allow true hybrid classes, with members working out from home and in-studio without one set feeling like second class citizens.  Workflow for live and on-demand content is optimized in a single content management platform that’s designed specifically for fitness.

The good news is you don’t have to wrap your mind around all of that today.  With Tribe, you can start with an iPhone and a free trial followed by $49 to $199 per month, and deliver a better experience than the Zoom classes you’re doing right now.  If you reach a point where you’re ready to take steps up the virtual fitness ladder, you can have confidence that Tribe is helping to chart out the path ahead of you, and is ultimately the right partner to raise your game at lower cost and lower risk than you trying to reinvent the wheel and become a software company in the process.

Justin Marston

Thinker, writer, innovator, runner, Star Wars fan

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