How GOQii Aims to Reinvent Wearable Fit-Tech with an Army of Personal Wellness Advisors

Is that an instant message? No, it's your life coach giving you a 'remote high-five' for exceeding your step-count goals.

Sensors are overrated. We don't need them to generate more penetrating, rarefied data about what's going on inside our bodies. What we really need is a friendly face--a mentor, a confidante--who can help us put simple exercise and sleep data to good use.

That's the philosophy behind GOQii, a new fit-tech platform that intends to enlist an army of personal coaches to advise, encourage, and gently cajole humankind toward better health habits.

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Yes, you read that correctly. GOQii is a "coaching on the cloud" service that will employ thousands of wellness advisors to reach out and nudge couch potatoes via daily instant messages. It's one the craziest ideas I've heard in all my time covering activity-tracking wristbands. But in a fit-tech market that's hitting critical mass with samey-samey devices stuffed with off-the-shelf sensors, it's a crazy idea that just might work.

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"The most important sensor is common sense," says Vishal Gondal, GOQii founder and CEO. "This really comes down to human interaction, and no algorithms can match that."

Pinging, chatting, constant engagement

At its core, GOQii is a subscription platform. When the service goes live in the U.S. this December, a six-month coaching plan will cost $99--and GOQii will toss in its activity-tracking wristband for free. The band itself--a rubbery lash of silicone with a removable hardware module--is nothing special. An onboard accelerometer helps count steps, calorie burn, distance traveled, total activity time, and sleep. All these metrics are displayed on an OLED display, and synced with an accompanying mobile app over Bluetooth.

The hardware is pedestrian, but the service is designed to supercharge engagement. According to a January study by Endeavor Partners PDF, more than half of all consumers who've bought modern fit-tech wearables have given up on their devices. So how do you get people to stick with the program? Gondal says it all comes down to basic human accountability.

"Our coaches are pinging you, they're chatting with you, asking you how you're doing. That's really the secret sauce of what we're doing--fostering engagement, which only humans can do," he says. "This whole thing has been scientifically designed to reinforce the element of OK, I'm now responsible.' There's going to be somebody talking to you, and asking you how you're doing."

This April, GOQii will launch as a public beta in India with some 500 coaches, and Gondal says the system will scale to more than 5,000 coaches within the next 24 to 36 months. Each coach will be assigned a set number of regular clients, with the expectation to instant-message each customer two or three times a day.

The subscription also includes once-monthly check-in calls--you get to speak to an actual human voice!--and if you pass a certain threshold in your activity plan, your coach will buzz your wristband to give you a "remote high-five."A That's right, Gondal says, your coach will be the agent who hits that high-five trigger. Because if it were an algorithm, it just wouldn't feel as rewarding.

Perhaps you might reconsider that Red Bull

During a hands-on demo, Gondal showed me the GOQii mobile app to demonstrate just how personalized the advice sessions can get. Gondal asked his coach if it would be OK to drink a Red Bull to alleviate jet lag. His coach shot down energy drinks quickly, and advised Gondal to take a power nap and drink some freshly squeezed juice. In another in-app message, the coach asked Gondal if he was drinking enough water.

The whole demo seemed a bit... involved. Especially when Gondal explained that a coach might recommend specific herbal teas for combatting sleep problems. Isn't this the type of advice we would expect from a doctor, and not someone working out of the cloud-connected equivalent of a Mumbai call center? Most definitely not, Gondal says.

"We're very clear that we're not a medical service," he says. "We're not giving anyone any medical prescriptions, and we're not about exercise, and we're not a weight loss program. We're essentially focused on the Pareto principle of giving you that 20 percent of knowledge that gets you 80 percent of your results. This is largely about getting you more active, getting more sleep, and mindful eating."

The GOQii program was created by a four-person team that includes a nutritionist, a cardiovascular surgeon, and an expert in behavioral science and coaching theory. Gondal rounds out the brain trust with his own expertise in gamification strategies. (He's the founder of IndiaGames, perhaps India's largest mobile games company, which was bought by DisneyA in 2011 for $100 million).

According to GOQii's online FAQ, all of its coaches will undergo a training process to ensure they're "experts above and beyond a complete understanding of modern nutrition and fitness research." Gondal also told me that GOQii's coaches will be trained in "motivational interviewing and cognitive behavioral theory" to make sure each customer's wellness program is properly designed for winning results.

And if basic human accountability isn't enough? There's a powerful element called Karma Points. In a nutshell, every 390 steps you take is worth a single Karma Point. The idea is to accumulate as many points as possible, and then convert them into donations for groups like Oxfam International and other charitable foundations. It's your "virtual currency for spreading good," Gondal says. And it's not an out-of-pocket expense for GOQii customers, Gondal says, as all donations are covered by GOQii partners.

We've heard crazier ideas

When I began my GOQii demo with Gondal, I thought I was listening to the best-laid plans of an incurable optimist. Personal, one-to-one wellness coaching for every single person who buys the GOQii band? It sounded like the fit-tech version of Amazon's Mayday service. Certifiably nutso, right? What about infrastructure demands and scalability? How could GOQii's wellness army deliver personalized service to strangers located, quite possibly, many continents away?

But it turns out Mayday works for Amazon. So perhaps Gondal will have the last laugh. I'm a dedicated fitness band user, but as the Endeavor Partners' study indicates, the fit-tech sector is skating on the thin ice of customer dissatisfaction. So bring on the wild ideas. GOQii joins a field that includes Google Glass, pendants that monitor sunburn risk, and baby onesies with sewn-in health sensors. So it's not like the wearables space is disqualifying any flight of fancy as untenable.

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