Pebble, RunKeeper Team Up as Wearable Computing Gains Steam

Way back in 2012, when the folks behind the Pebble smartwatch were still trying to get their dream gadget built, a hunt began for applications that would show off the miniature wearable computer’s best features.

It would be waterproof, with an e-paper screen that wearers could read in outdoor light. Its Bluetooth connection would bring access to a nearby smartphone’s GPS location-tracking features. And, as watches go, it would definitely look more like a sport accessory than a high-fashion bauble.

RunKeeper was one of the No. 1 things we thought of,” Pebble CEO Eric Migicovsky says. “It was pretty obvious.”

Made even more obvious, perhaps, by the fact that Migicovsky was himself a pretty avid user of RunKeeper, the Boston-bred smartphone app that lets users keep track of their jogging, biking, and hiking exploits and monitor the resulting health and fitness data online.

“That’s the best thing about having a consumer service,” says Jason Jacobs, CEO and founder of FitnessKeeper, the startup that produces RunKeeper. “You never know who your users are and where they sit. Sometimes, they’re in some pretty interesting places.”

Today, that serendipitous partnership is bearing fruit: RunKeeper is one of just two third-party apps to be officially integrated with Pebble.

For Palo Alto, CA-based Pebble, this is another milestone in a long, very interesting journey into consumers’ hands. The smartwatch project had a near-death experience when Migicovsky and crew had a hard time finding venture backing, and then rocketed to prominence almost overnight with a record-setting $10 million campaign on Kickstarter, the crowdfunding website.

(And, interestingly enough, this is the second Boston-area company to play a role in getting the Pebble off the ground—Dragon Innovation, a manufacturing consultancy founded by former iRobot executive Scott Miller, was Pebble’s passport to getting its device built in China.)

For RunKeeper, it’s another step in a long-term campaign to tie into a wide variety of consumer electronics, putting the app in front of a growing audience of athletes and regular Joes as Internet-connected, sensor-laden devices continue appearing in all corners of modern life.

The Pebble is different from most of the other integrations that RunKeeper has put together, such as the Withings digital scale or Jawbone UP wristband. Typically, devices that connect with the RunKeeper system are hooked into its online application interface, which allows data collected by the gadgets to be uploaded to the Internet.

But since the Pebble talks with the app itself, using Bluetooth connect at the smartphone level, it can become the alternate readout for the real-time location and time tracking that is at RunKeeper’s core.

“It’s almost like the technology starts fading into the background,” Jacobs says. “If it’s just there on your wrist, in your eyesight already, it just becomes part of the experience.”

And that makes the Pebble a bit more significant than its small, early adopter user base might seem on its own (Pebble is just finishing up the job of shipping watches to its roughly 65,000 Kickstarter backers, while RunKeeper already claims 18 million users).

As we’ve seen with the alternating excitement and trepidation over Google Glass, which has only just started getting into the hands of a few selected testers, a lot more wearable computing equipment is coming down the pike.

The RunKeeper crew is, of course, excited for the possibilities that devices like Glass will bring for its application.

“You could envision a world where you’re wearing your Glass and you have a heads-up display of your mileage, how much time has elapsed … approximately where you are on your route, or even who else is around,” Jacobs says. “It’s just incredible what is becoming possible really quickly.”

For Pebble, the RunKeeper features are about delivering on a basic feature that was promised back during the Kickstarter campaign that catapulted the gadget to stardom. The other official app now available for the smartwatch is Free Caddie, which helps golfers keep track of distance, par, and other golf-course information.

But more apps are coming soon, Migicovsky says—a step that could help Pebble expand into a much broader market, since many reviews have deemed the smartwatch a cool $150 device that doesn’t quite live up to its promise without a large variety of customizable apps.

Pebble plans to open up its software development kit to more developers on a test basis next month, Migicovsky says. Some of the possibilities that have caught his eye include “remote control” type apps that interact with connected TVs, or cars, or other devices in the home.

“But at the same time, we don’t really know how people will use it, which is really cool. We have 85,000 people who are using it … and the next step is kind of up to people who are building apps for Pebble.”

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