Virgin Pulse launches its own low-cost tracker

By Jonah Comstock
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Virgin MaxVirgin Pulse, the corporate wellness and engagement company formerly known as Virgin HealthMiles, launched its own proprietary activity tracker called the Virgin Pulse Max at CES in Las Vegas.

"We call it Max, and Max is a companion," Virgin Pulse CEO Chris Boyce told MobiHealthNews. "We want people to think about this as a little companion they have in their life that helps them lead a better life and helps them achieve the goals they want to achieve and helps them do things that are better."

Virgin's device will only be available to employees using Virgin Pulse plans and their friends and family, but it will have a lower price point then most direct-to-consumer devices -- $39.99. This is a lower price than even the Fitbug Orb ($49.95) and the Fitlinxx Pebble ($59.99 through SparkPeople).

Boyce said that direct-to-consumer activity trackers like Fitbit or Nike Fuelband have a boost to engagement because the user has already spent a lot of money on the device and demonstrated a willingness to use it. In designing Max, Virgin Pulse wanted a device that would engage people even if they weren't already sold on it.

"So having it on a simple screen and having people get direct messages and see exactly how many steps you walked is an important part of really engaging the population," he said. "We want these devices to be small, feature for feature like other devices on the market, but we want to focus really on that engagement."

The Max device is a small black box with a screen that can be clipped onto a belt or worn on the wrist. Although the tracker can sync via Bluetooth with a smartphone, it can also connect via USB to a computer to accommodate users who don't have smartphones. The device tracks steps taken, calories burned, distance travelled, and active minutes. Boyce said a firmware update system will allow the company to add sleep tracking in the future.

One of the most novel features of the device is the "bump challenge": Users can initiate a challenge with another user just by tapping their devices together. Once they do, it sets off a competition to see who can get the most steps before midnight of that day. The screen also displays personalized messages that can be branded by the employer's company, telling the user to move around if they've been sitting for a long time, or encouraging them if they've taken a lot of steps. Users can opt out of the messaging, as well.

Another area where Virgin is taking a shot at engagement is battery life: The Virgin Pulse Max has a battery life of six months, according to the company. "Charging is just another time to lose the device or not use the device," Boyce said.

Virgin Pulse (then Virgin HealthMiles) added Fitbit integration just a few months ago. Virgin Pulse employees can still opt to buy other direct to consumer activity trackers, including Fitbit. Virgin's existing device, the GoZone pedometer, will be phased out gradually, Boyce said.

"If someone wants really high end devices that read galvanic skin response, that's fine. That's not where we want to be," Boyce said. "We want to be the every day device for the masses."