Wearable gaming to make exercise fun (but not too fun)

Wearable gaming to make exercise fun (but not too fun)

Google is crossing genres with its latest wearable for kids, combining a gaming system and an activity tracker in the Fitbit Ace LTE. The company is pitching this as a “first-of-its-kind connected smartwatch that transforms exercise into play and safely helps kids lead more active, independent lives.” Basically, think of it as a Nintendo Switch pared down into an activity tracker for children aged 7 and up, with a few safety and connectivity features built in.

The main idea here is to get kids up and moving, in exchange for progress on the Ace LTE’s onboard games. But there are also basic tools that let parents (and trusted contacts) stay in touch with the wearer. Through the new Fitbit Ace app (that adults can install on iOS or Android), guardians can set play time, monitor activity progress and send calls or messages. On the watch itself, kids can also use the onscreen keyboard or microphone to type or dictate texts or choose an emoji.

Since the Fitbit Ace LTE uses a simplified version of the hardware on the Pixel Watch 2, it’s pretty responsive. One major difference, though, is that the kid-friendly tracker uses Gorilla Glass 3 on its cover, in addition to the 5 ATMs of water-resistance that both models share. Google does include a protective case with each Ace LTE, and it doesn’t add much weight.

There are also other obvious differences because the Pixel Watch 2 has a circular face while the Fitbit Ace LTE has a “squircle” (square with rounded corners) OLED with two large buttons on the right side. The latter’s band is also a lot narrower, and it comes “with technology built in,” according to Google’s vice president of product management Anil Sabharwal. That’s just a fancy way to say that the Ace LTE recognizes when you swap in a new strap and each accessory comes with unique content.

Cherlynn Low for Engadget


The company is calling these straps “Cartridges” — another reminder of how the Fitbit Ace LTE is a gaming console wannabe. When you snap a new one on, you’ll see an animation of all the bonus material you just got. They include new backgrounds and items for your Tamagotchi-esque pet called “eejie.” Separate bands also add unique cartoony strips, called Noodles, that make their way around the edges of the watch’s display every day which chart the wearer’s progress towards daily goals, similar to Apple’s activity rings.

I’m dancing around the main part of the Fitbit Ace LTE’s proposition, because I wanted to get the hardware out of the way. The most interesting concept here is the idea of a wearable gaming system. The Ace LTE’s home screen looks fairly typical. It shows you the time and the Noodle activity ring around it, as well as some small font at the very bottom showing the number of points collected.

To the left of this page is what Sabharwal called a “playlist” — a collection of daily quests. Like on other iOS or Android games, this is a bunch of targets to hit within a dictated time frame to ensure you’re engaged, and achieving these goals leads to rewards.

Most of these rewards are things you can use to jazz up your digital pet’s home over on the right of the home screen. Google calls these things “eejies” — that name doesn’t actually mean anything. Some engineers in a room looked at the letters “I” “J” and “I” and sounded them out and thought sure, why not. (No, those letters don’t actually stand for anything, either.)

The Fitbit Ace LTE on a wrist held in mid-air, with a digital character inside a pink bedroom on the screen. At the top is the word

Cherlynn Low for Engadget

According to Google, “Eejies are customizable creatures that feed off daily activity — the more kids reach their movement goals, the more healthy and happy their eejie gets.” When daily activities are completed and each child earns arcade tickets (or when a new watch strap is attached), they can exchange them for new outfit or furniture items for their eejies.

Even though they’re supposed to be “customizable creatures,” the eejies are anthropomorphic and look like… well, kids. Depending on how you style them, they sort of look like sullen teenagers, even. Don’t expect a cute Pikachu or Digimon to play with, these eejie are two-legged beings with heads, arms and necks. I’d prefer something cuter, but perhaps the target demographic likes feeding and playing with a strange avatar of themselves.

When multiple Ace LTE wearers meet up, their eejie can visit each other and leave emoji messages. Of course, how fun that is depends on how many of your (kid’s) friends have Ace LTEs.

Even without that social component though, the Ace LTE can be quite a lot of fun. It is the home of Fitbit Arcade, a new library of games built specifically for this wearable. So far, I’ve only seen about six games in the collection, including a room escape game, a fishing simulator and a Mario Kart-like racer.

The first game I tried at Google’s briefing was Smoky Lake, the fishing game. After a quick intro, I tapped on a shadow of a fish in the water, and flung my arm out. I waited till the Ace LTE buzzed, then pulled my wrist in. I was told that I had caught a puffer fish, and swiped through to see more information about past catches. I earned five arcade tickets with this catch.

I gleefully tried again and caught what I was told was the “biggest pineapple gillfish” acquired that day. Other hauls the Ace LTE I was wearing had acquired included a “ramen squid” and a “blob fish,” and tapping an icon on the upper left brought up my library of things that had been caught.

The Fitbit Ace LTE on a wrist held in mid-air, with the words

Cherlynn Low for Engadget

I then played a round of Pollo 13, a racing game where I played as a chicken in a bathtub competing in an intergalactic space match against my arch nemesis. There, I tilted my wrist in all directions to steer, keeping my vehicle on track or swerving to collect items that sped me up. Just as I expected based on my prior Mario Kart experience (and also my general lack of skill at driving in real life), I sucked at this game and came in last. Sabharwal gently informed me that this was the poorest result they had seen all day.

I didn’t get to check out other titles installed, like Galaxy Rangers, Jelly Jam or Sproutlings but I was most intrigued by a room escape game, which is my favorite genre.

Google doesn’t want to encourage obsession or addiction to the Ace LTE’s games, though. “We don’t want kids to overexercise. We don’t want kids to feel like they have a streak and if they miss a day, ‘Oh my God, the world is over!’” Sabharwal said.

To that end, progress in each game is built around encouraging the wearer to meet movement goals to advance to new stages. Every two to three minutes, you’ll be prompted to get up and move. In Smokey Lake, for instance, you’ll be told that you’ve run out of bait and have to walk a few hundred steps to go to the bait shop. This can be achieved by walking a number of steps or doing any activity that meets similar requirements. Google is calling this “interval-based gaming,” playing on the idea of “interval-based training.” After about five to 10 sessions, the company thinks each wearer will hit the 60 to 90 minutes of daily required activity recommended by the World Health Organization.

The Fitbit Ace LTE on a wrist held in mid-air, with two game titles on a carousel in view:

Cherlynn Low for Engadget

The idea of activity as currency for games isn’t exactly novel, but Google’s being quite careful in its approach. Not only is it trying to avoid addiction, which for the target age group is a real concern, but the company also says it built the Ace LTE “responsibly from the ground up” by working with “experts in child psychology, public health, privacy and digital wellbeing.” It added that the device was “built with privacy in mind, front and center,” and that only parents will ever be shown a child’s location or activity data in their apps. Location data is deleted after 24 hours, while activity data is deleted after a maximum of 35 days. Google also said “there are no third-party apps or ads on the device.”

While activity is the main goal at launch, there is potential for the Ace LTE to track sleep and other aspects of health to count towards goals. Parts of the Ace LTE interface appeared similar to other Fitbit trackers, with movement reminders and a Today-esque dashboard. But from my brief hands-on, it was hard to fully explore and compare.

Though I like the idea of the Ace LTE and was definitely entertained by some of the games, I still have some reservations. I was concerned that the device I tried on felt warm, although Sabharwal explained it was likely because the demo units had been charging on and off all day. I also didn’t care for the thick bezels around the screen, though that didn’t really adversely impact my experience. What did seem more of a problem was the occasional lag I encountered waiting for games to load or to go to the home screen. I’m not sure if that was a product of early software or if the final retail units will have similar delays, and will likely need to run a full review to find out.

The Fitbit Ace LTE is available for pre-order today for $230 on the Google Store or Amazon and it arrives on June 5. You’ll need to pay an extra $10 a month for the Ace Pass plan, which includes LTE service (on Google’s Fi) and access to Fitbit Arcade and regular content updates. If you spring for an annual subscription, you’ll get a collectable Ace Band (six are available at launch) and from now till August 31, the yearly fee is discounted at 50 percent off, making it about $5 a month.

Update, May 29, 3:15PM ET: This story has been edited to clarify that the Fitbit Ace LTE’s hardware is a simplified version of the Pixel Watch 2. It is not capable of sleep or stress tracking.

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