ARDAEngine: the Arthur C Clarke definition of magic?

ardaengine sports coach technology idealogPLTech's ARDAEngine technology provides an elite sports coach in your pocket, taking biometric outputs and delivering smart analysis to athletes.

You’ll find Jon Ackland in a small office at the end of a cul de sac in Birkenhead, or perhaps with the Artemis team as they prepare for this year's America's Cup. He’s a difficult man to track down, much as it is difficult to track the impact he has had on the All Blacks, Team NZ and a large number of long distance and endurance athletes – many of them world champions.

With more than 20 years' experience of working with athletes, often remotely, Ackland has become very good at interpreting large amounts of  data and providing meaningful coaching advice. Eventually he decided to automate the process, and over a number of years and following a series of breakthoughs, introduced a prototype device on a smartphone – an elite coach in your pocket.

PLTech was spun out of Performance Labs, and eventually Ackland and CEO Kerri McMaster (a former world champion herself) reached out to a wide range of people for help with the launch and commercialisation of what was to become the ARDAEngine.

ARDA takes the output from the biometric sensors that athletes wear, such as heart rate monitors, watches and iPhones, and applies very intelligent interpretation and analysis in real time. It brings Ackland’s elite coach-level feedback to all athletes, and does so in real time, rather than after the fact in a lab. Indeed, Ackland complains that the prototype can deliver better feedback and coaching than he can, and do so instantly,

There's a huge range of fitness biometrics products, with the best and most popular from the likes of Garmin, Nike, Adidas, Strava, Runkeeper, MapMyFitness and gym equipment manufacturers. These and others all use sensor data to produce beautiful charts, but struggle to provide meaningful coaching feedback during training. The classic example quoted to us is when an athlete starts running up a hill – their heart rate will naturally rise as they do more work and the heart rate zone monitor will alarm, telling the athlete to slow down, perhaps to a walk. That’s not how hill training works, as that extra effort is a requirement. The existing applications likely don’t even know you are on a hill, and it turns out that it’s a hard problem to integrate biometric, elevation, meteorological and historical data. PL Tech has done so, and has patents on the method the ARDAEngine uses to do this.

PLTech sees that there is a large gap in the market:

PLTech of course sees that the ARDA Engine can fill the gap, and in conjunction with existing and forthcoming products, deliver a huge step change in the field.

In use the ARDAEngine does seem to change everything, giving coaching and analysis based on the athlete’s training plan (if he/she has one), previous records, current activity and the environment. PLTech isn’t saying everything as many of the features are trade secrets, but it does give advice specific to the person exercising, and will adapt as performance, goals and the conditions change.

PLTech sees three main segments for the core ARDAEngine, and also has the ability to take positional data from cameras and transform it into instant insights for coaches and TV producers.

The first segment is the software-only players such as Runkeeper and MapMyFitness that use smartphones and perhaps heart rate monitors to capture data. Smartphones have an increasing array of sensors, and smart companies are using these to creep into the space formerly occupied by specialist technology providers like Garmin. These companies are usually venture-backed and expanding quickly, perhaps searching for the right business model. The ARDAEngine would provide them with a premium product that allows them to deliver genuine benefits to their customers, and capture revenue in return.

The second segment is hardware technology driven players, such as Garmin, Polar, Timex and Suunto, and also the gym equipment manufacturers. Garmin is the clear leader in this space. These companies are the best at providing accurate data, and provide access to that data on the web. However the players in the first segment are charging towards this space, and devices like the iPhone, while bulky, are far more accessible and easy to use than dedicated watches and so forth. PLTech sees that the ARDA Engine technology would help these firms differentiate their products from others in this and other segments through maintaining a technology gap.

That gap seems increasingly hard to maintain, as while the biometric fitness and quantified self market has been growing strongly for the entire industry, it's a technological war that requires a constant stream of new product releases. The giant in the space is Garmin, and its revenue and income by segment chart speaks to the importance of the fitness segment for them, as a major contributor to growth that is offsetting the decline in their marine segment.

In this second segment all the companies have everything to gain, and to lose, and the ones that can get and stay ahead will reap billions in enterprise value.

The third segment is full service apparel, footwear and equipment providers, including  Nike, Adidas and Asics, and led for now by Nike. These players have the websites and much of the technology of the previous segments, but can also use biometric technology as a way to lift sales of shoes and apparel. They started by partnering (Adidas with Polar) and by keeping it simple, as with the Nike+. The Nike+ story is well known in the industry, with, for example, page five of this slideshow showing Nike’s US shoe market share lifting from 47 percent to 57 percent in a year, and to 61 percent thereafter. The original Nike+ product was fairly low tech, but elegantly simple, and it opened up an entirely new market. Nike and Adidas are steadily improving their technology, and have always had the lead in usability. Nike in particular are increasing the pace of change, and give the Nike+ range a very high profile on their website and retail stores. The have a range of products including the Fuelband, apps, integration with the iPod Nano and a new basketball product. Adidas has the MiCoach range, but while impressive they  are currently somewhat buried on their websites and in retail stores.

One magic part of ARDAEngine is that new customers can simply start running, with no setup required, and the coaching will begin. For these firms PLTech sees that the ARDAEngine will allow them to maintain the simple and elegant user experiences while delivering genuine benefit to their customers. This will open up new markets and expand sales for their biometric as well as clothing and shoe products.  PLTech also sees that just as the technology players in the second segment are being squeezed from the smartphone software players, they must also be very nervous at the prospect of these third segment industry giants taking over their space.

The ARDAEngine technology is perhaps the Arthur C Clarke definition of magic for the industry. Not bad for a guy in a small office at the end of a cul de sac.

Lance Wiggs is a consultant and entrepreneur, Idealog contributor, and one of the people helping PLTech with the commercialisation process. See lancewiggs.com