Are Watch Parties the Future of At-Home Fitness? - Part 2

Going Virtual

In Part 1 of this two part blog series, we took a look at different options that people have to workout from home, and the unique value proposition that omnichannel can play - where studios offer in-person fitness options as well as at-home options that feel like they are part of a single experience (versus being totally separate). In Part 2, we’re focused on watch parties - who’s using them, how they work and how Tribe’s software can make them even better.

Watch Parties - an Overview

I think “watch parties” may turn out to be a great answer for omnichannel fitness, and a few brands are trying them today:

·       Orangetheory: In OT Live, the user experience in the app is designed to have both a live coach and a video of a class. The live coach can pick a video, typically shot in a studio and edited together, then that becomes the demo video for members to follow along. But the live coach is sat (like on a sofa) there in front of camera as in a Zoom meeting, watching participants, giving real-time feedback and encouragement. In OT Live, members can also earn Splat Points, the currency of Orangetheory, so at-home workouts count towards a member’s temporary and lifetime achievements.

·       F45: We’ve seen F45 studios taking a similar approach on Zoom. The coach will jump into Zoom, and then screenshare a full video of a class that was shot at F45 HQ. Again, the coach is then free to engage with the participants, rather than running through the exercises.

Here’s a quick summary of some of the potential benefits of watch parties:

1.     You can combine high production content from TV trained coaches together with the real community and relationships of local coaches.

2.     Your coach can focus on coaching and interacting with members, not demoing exercises while trying to squint at a laptop screen in the distance.

3.     In larger brands, you can get better leveraging of one or two centralized TV studios, just as Orangetheory and F45 are doing.

4.     If you have an on-demand back catalog, you can monetize that catalog in a new way with watch party live classes.

5.     It’s less stressful on the bodies of your local coaches if they are doing something more like group personal training than having to demo every exercise.

6.     It doesn’t have to be “all or nothing” - you can mix live coach demos for some exercises in the class (e.g. stretches) and not others (e.g. HIIT moves).

7.     In general, with the right tech platform, the video quality of the main class video can be higher quality in a watch party than doing it live over a video chat platform like Zoom.

8.     If you have movements that need to be on the beat (like dance classes), with the right tech platform, you can avoid the sync issues from doing the movements live over Zoom.

9.     Although separate to live coach led watch parties, if members can host watch parties, then they can combine the schedule flexibility of on-demand with the community feeling of a live class.

10.  Compared to just outsourcing to Apple or Les Mills, watch parties can feel part of your brand, not totally separate.

These watch parties are interesting - they’re kind of analogous to the video game site Twitch, which has found massive “product market fit” with millions of viewers every day. All these fans tune in to watch their heroes go play video games and talk to each other, reality TV style.

The big Twitch gaming stars are just sat there in their gaming home office playing the video game, but the main screen is the video game itself, which some game studio spent many millions of dollars designing and developing. If all you could see is a talking head of the person playing the game (and no game action), it would get really boring really fast - but the quality of the video game graphics combined with the live action and interaction makes the Twitch user experience addictive.

Watch Parties on Tribe

At Tribe, we have built product features to make studio operations more effective for shooting content - like high quality feedback monitor interfaces for coaches, and we’ve been working on multi-camera automation to remove the need for a TV crew on-site. These are still useful for different production contexts - multi-camera automation can help reduce content creation for the high production quality content to be shared in watch parties - but now we’ll take a look at how watch parties specifically are informing Tribe’s product roadmap.

Want to see it in action? Take a look at this quick demo video!

Now for some more detail!

Features We Have

What features has Tribe already built in its products that are relevant to watch parties? The ones underlined in the list below are particularly relevant to watch parties.

·       Branding: You can have branded or white labeled apps, so that the participants know they’re using your premium tech, not just a regular app like Zoom.

·       Two Way Video: Your coach can see all the participants with live two way video. The video is muted during class so that classes don’t get frustrated by background noise.

·       Casting: Participants can cast a class to their laptop or TV with metrics integration, or access it directly from their laptops.

·       Participant Experience Customization: Participants can turn on and off elements like leaderboards and timelines, and your coach can determine which of these get shown on a per class basis. Members can also pick which other participants they want to see - so each participant can see his/her friends versus a random set.

·       Metrics and Leaderboards: Tribe has apps for the major smartwatches (Apple, Samsung, Fitbit, Garmin, Wear OS) and also supports heart rate straps, so members can get some calorie based competition.

·       Coach Monitor Screens: Both for the timeline of a class and for showing a gallery view of all participants that fuses their two way video with metrics and achievements. This means that your coaches can have more authentic and meaningful celebrations with members (versus the only thing to give shoutouts on is watching someone’s video).

·       Text Chat Integration: Tribe classes have text chat all the way through, and if a participant sends a message direct to the coach, it will flash larger on screen so the coach doesn’t miss it.

·       Video Chat + Streaming: Tribe combines video chat with high quality live streaming - using low latency video chat (like Zoom, so people can talk to each other) before and after class, but allowing higher quality video streaming during the class itself. This actually works best when some of the class is watch party and some of it has the coach demoing the movements.

·       Video Streaming Options: A recent add for Tribe, similar to different latency options when streaming on YouTube, we now support two different video options during class:

o   Zoom: We embed Zoom’s technology for ultra-low latency. This option works best in coach led watch parties, because the coach can give real-time feedback with no delay just like on Zoom today. The video quality isn’t as high with the second option, but since the main screen is showing prerecorded content, that doesn’t matter.

o   IVS: We embed Amazon’s technology for high quality video. This option is less suited to coach led watch parties, but works great for shooting the high quality, coach-led content with all the movement demos, and the motion stays in sync to the music.

·       Live + On-demand: Tribe does both in a single platform - you can record a class live, and then immediately turn it into an on-demand asset. What’s also interesting here is the ability to turn a recorded live class into a media asset for watch parties.

·       Privacy Rights: Members can decide whether everyone can see their video camera stream, or only the coach can see it. Members can also decide whether their own video is recorded, so other people can watch it later while taking the class on-demand.

·       Timelines: A coach can create a timeline for a class, with segments and exercises together with countdown clocks - similar to timelines in Mirror and Peloton. This timeline is shown to both the participants (in the class experience) and to the coach (in the coach monitor app).

·       Media Clips: A coach can tie media clips to the timeline for a class. A media clip can be a video (and also a still image or an audio effect, like a bell noise at the end of each round in a boxing class). In the context of watch parties, the video clip can be small (picture in picture) or large (full screen). This is directly analogous to what Orangetheory and F45 have been doing today, but unlike screensharing a video on Zoom (like F45), the media clips in Tribe are high quality - like watching YouTube or Netflix. Screensharing a video from Zoom is not going to be high quality (for some technical reasons about real-time re-encoding the video clip versus playing it directly from the source). So a coach can select a recording of a whole other class, and make that the full screen video, then do a class like group personal training over the top (picture in picture) - it’s a lot like Twitch streaming. A coach can also pick different clips from a standard movement library (see below) versus having to record or edit a whole class together - this is easier to do ad hoc.

·       Class Templates: A master coach or headquarters in a larger brand can create a template for a class. That template can include a timeline and media clips, as well as other class attributes like required equipment and tags / modality. Later this year the class template will be able to include music, camera behavior and other class properties. This is a great way for one person to pump out content blueprints that other coaches can easily follow - similar to what Les Mills and Zumba do with their HQ created content templates today.

Upcoming Features

What’s Tribe planning to build that can make watch parties on Tribe even better? Again, the underlined ones are particularly relevant to watch parties.

·       Direct Audio: You know when your coach is wearing a headset in the studio, and he or she turns off the radio mic for a minute to go have a direct (two way) conversation with a member, then the coach turns the radio mic back on to be able to talk to the whole class again? Direct Audio is like that, but in digital. The default during class is that the coach is talking to all participants, and all participants' mics are muted, but with Direct Audio the coach will be able to temporarily select a specific participant and have a two way direct audio conversation with just that one user, then go back to the default. The participant doesn’t have to do anything - his or her mic turns on and off automagically.

·       Enhanced Music: Some relation to Direct Audio, but we’re working on channels for music so the coach audio and music are separate channels in the same stream. We will also be adding a royalty free music option (with playlists synced to the timeline), and playlist syncing to Apple Music and Spotify (so participants with subscriptions to one of those services can hear commercial music in the background through their existing paid subscription).

·       Spotlighting: Again useful in watch party modes, and similar to spotlighting in tools like Zoom today, the coach can select a specific participant in the class (e.g. who’s doing a movement really well), and that participant’s video then becomes the main screen video for the whole class while the participant is spotlighted. It’s one more way to involve your members in that live class experience.

·       Advanced Privacy Rights: We plan to add more fine grained access controls for participants for their video camera streams. For example, Claire can set her privacy setting to “on request”, and then when Sally wants to see Claire’s video during the class, Sally does a request via the app and Claire has to approve it. This setting will be remembered in the future, so Sally only has to ask Claire once, and then she can always see Claire’s video stream when they’re taking classes together.

·       Selfies and Emoticons: Lots of watch parties support emoticons, like Facebook / Meta and Instagram, even Zoom supports it in both its video chat and live events experiences. Selfies work well for members who are shy about having their cameras turned on the whole time, but are happy to share a posed selfie to everyone when asked to do so by the coach. Mirror (now Lululemon Studio) supports this today to add more sense of community to its classes.

·       Better Zoom Integration: We want to make it even easier for your studio to use Tribe in live classes, irrespective of whatever gym management software you’re using, and our relationship with Zoom is going to make that possible later this year. We can’t say much about it yet, but you can see Zoom’s case study about Tribe here.

·       Movement Library: Tribe has begun shooting (video filming) a library of exercise movements in studio conditions that coaches can use for free in their classes, like burpees and planks. You will be able to use these for free on Tribe’s platform with no Tribe branding, and we are planning to also make them available for free to everyone off platform (using any video streaming tool you want) with light Tribe branding. Just one more way for us to serve the fitness community!

·       Content Hub: Creating high quality content is time consuming and expensive, and while the big brands have the scale to do that at headquarters, we believe that a lot of smaller studios don’t have the time or money to create all that content in house. For this reason, we’re planning to launch a B2B content hub later this year that will allow you to get passive revenue from your own high quality content and to license high quality content from other studios, so you don’t have to invent all content all in-house. Just like with the movement library we’re creating in-house, your own local coach could use that content in a watch party, with your coach giving live instruction and encouragement to your members in real-time.

Light at the End of the Tunnel

Does it feel like we’re searching for product market fit? You betcha, and so is digital at a local level. Nobody has really taken the essence of local, boutique studio fitness and operationalized it at scale in the fitness market. Omnichannel is a buzzword in the industry, but very few brands have a holistic member journey that feels premium both in-studio and at-home. Being dispassionate, a lot of the current attempts in local fitness to do digital do feel kind of doomed to fail.

But there is light at the end of the tunnel. If you’re a studio or gym owner, don’t give up on digital just yet.

As an industry, we haven’t found the right models or had the right tools to be successful at omnichannel or at-home fitness yet. But there is promise in the comparison to local e-commerce, and at Tribe we compare to that a lot. Plenty of naysayers said that small businesses couldn’t succeed at e-commerce (too expensive, too technical, too …) - but with Shopify, millions of small businesses are now selling online, and being successful at it.

If we can get the model right and have a platform that makes it easy, I firmly believe that local fitness studios and gyms can have differentiated, compelling and profitable offerings for at-home fitness. For many studios, I think watch parties may become part of that answer.

Justin Marston

Thinker, writer, innovator, runner, Star Wars fan

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