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A super‑efficient GPS module could become a game changer for fitness trackers

September 11, 2017

Ever since the Nike+ FuelBand came out in 2012, proving the appeal of wrist‑based activity tracking, the category has exploded. Nowadays, a whole industry has emerged around this market, led by brands like Fitbit and Xiaomi.

Whereas early fitness trackers could get by on simple activity monitoring using a basic accelerometer, nowadays the market is much more competitive. Besides activity tracking, these days sleep monitoring and heart‑rate monitoring are expected, along with rugged yet fashionable designs.

How do device makers stand out in today’s wearable market? A look at the top fitness trackers on the market today points to onboard GPS. But the scarcity of products out there today shows: integrating an autonomous GPS into a fitness tracker without watering down its primary value proposition – its size, price, and relatively long battery life – has been much easier said than done.

Outdoor activity tracking
Fitness trackers today can count your calories burnt, measure your heartbeat, and can even be your personal coach, but without GPS functionality, they’re incomplete. For runners, hikers, cyclers, and other outdoor athletes, having the ability to track their workout or their journey with positioning technology is much more useful than simply counting steps.

Using Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) positioning, runners and cyclists can pace themselves, track distances, and monitor performance. Hikers can log their journeys, or even route themselves back to their starting position if they get lost.

Today some of these outdoor athletes are opting for GPS sports watches – full‑featured, smartwatch‑like devices that do everything they need and more. But not everyone wants a bulky, clunky, expensive watch.

Fitness trackers are the perfect solution for consumers who aren’t interested in the whole shebang and simply want a sleek, lightweight, and affordable device – one that can keep track of their activities both indoors and outside.

The missing piece of the puzzle
Tracking outdoor activities using GNSS positioning has been an obvious design goal for fitness trackers since day one, but technical challenges have stood in the way. While accelerometers, heart rate monitors, and other sensors have shrunk in size, cost, and power consumption, GNSS technology has remained a major energy hog.

That’s why adding GNSS to a wearable’s feature list has always been tied to a significant drop in battery life. On top of that, a much larger battery, needed to make up for increased power demand, has typically made it difficult to maintain the slim form factors important to this category of device and driven prices up.

With its ZOE‑M8B GNSS System‑in‑Package (SiP), announced this week, u‑blox has an ideal solution for wearable designers seeking to save every last square millimeter in their devices. Measuring just 4.5 x 4.5 x 1.0 mm, the ZOE‑M8B will fit easily on any PCB. And designed from the ground up for energy efficiency, the module uses only one‑third the power of current‑generation GNSS receivers.  

This dramatic reduction in power consumption opens up the possibility of adding GNSS positioning to many more devices, including fitness trackers that previously lacked the power budget for it, without sacrificing the slim form factors that consumers have come to expect.

For fitness trackers, GPS capability is the missing piece of the puzzle. By incorporating low‑power consumption GNSS using the ZOE‑M8B positioning SiP, these slim, elegant, and lightweight devices can finally serve their users from the gym to the trail.

For more information on ZOE‑M8B, come and see us at the u‑blox booth N.352 (M2M Zone) at MWC Americas, held on 12‑14 September in San Francisco. And for more blog posts on wearables, see our post on a great solution for GPS sports watches!

Florian Bousquet
Market Development Manager, Product Center Positioning, u-blox
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