There are lots of smart gadgets that track running, but few track swimming — that is, if you’d like something that’s built for swimming first, as opposed to a device with swim-tracking features tacked on. Form, a new fitness company founded by former Recon Instruments employees, is looking to solve this problem with its first product, the $199 Swim Goggles.
With this device, Form has tried to marry a Google Glass-style AR heads-up display with Fitbit-style tracking, specifically and exclusively for swimming. The result is surprisingly useful, although it’s better suited for truly serious swimmers.
The augmented reality aspect of the goggles, while seemingly over-the-top at first, actually makes a lot of sense. There are numerous fitness trackers that can track swimming, including category heavyweights like the Apple Watch or Fitbit’s newer smartwatches. But according to Form CEO Dan Eisenhardt, they all have the same problem: wrist trackers are bad for swimming because you need to use your arms to swim. It’s almost glaringly obvious in retrospect, like putting a fitness tracker for running around your ankle.
Wrist trackers are bad for swimming because you need to use your arms to swim
As for the display, it won’t be winning any awards for resolution: it’s effectively a yellow dot-matrix display that projects into your line of sight, similar to any number of other AR solutions. The whole thing is controlled through two buttons, but it’s simple enough to manage on the device, given that most of the settings are packed away in the app.
Unlike most run trackers, though, the Form goggles can only show you fitness data, such as split time, stroke count, lengths swam, calories, and more. It also works separately from your phone, which is good since you won’t have to leave a $1,000 device unattended poolside. Instead, you sync data back to your phone after your workout, where you can then examine your performance.
As a swim-tracking device, the Form goggles are among the best in terms of what data they can pick up. When I reviewed the Fitbit Charge 3 last year, I noted that it could only display time and heart rate on the device, with the rest stuck in the app. Recent Apple Watches can do more, but the Form goggles beat both of those product lines. The goggles can show different metrics for different points. For example, it can display stroke count during a lap, lap time when you make a turn, how long you’ve been resting, and how many calories you’ve burned when you pause. Those options have to be set in the app before you go, so if you haven’t added a particular metric to show up, you won’t be able to access it out on the water.
A smart system designed specifically for lap swimming
Since it’s untethered from a phone, there’s no way for the Form goggles to tell how long the pool you’re in is, so you’ll also have to input that first when you start an exercise. Once you do that, the Form goggles can do the rest through a combination of an accelerometer, gyroscope, and a whole bunch of algorithms calculated by an onboard computer that can tell when you’re swimming, stopped, or — most importantly — doing a turn at the end of a lap.
Like the rest of the Form goggles, it’s a smart system designed specifically for lap swimming. Unlike, say, running or biking, a swimming pool has a standardized length, which means Form doesn’t need to waste time, money, and space on GPS tracking to figure out exactly how far you’ve swam. It just needs to know how big your pool is and when you’re switching directions.
At least, in theory. The whole system relies on you being a decent swimmer since it’s not really measuring the actual distance you swim; it’s just multiplying how many turns you’ve made against how long the pool is. When I was swimming with good technique (like my first few laps), the goggles worked great, tracking not only my laps but even correctly identifying when I was swimming freestyle, breaststroke, and backstroke. But as I progressed and got sloppier, stopping halfway through a lap or switching strokes part of the way through, the goggles got confused. They still identified strokes correctly and measured my pace, but the system treated each of those interruptions as separate laps, giving me credit for twice as much swimming as I actually did.
The whole system does rely on you being a decent swimmer
This likely won’t be an issue for people who are good at swimming (which, I suspect, most people who are thinking of investing $200 in a swim tracker are). But currently, there’s no way to edit that lap data in the app, so you’re stuck with the bad metrics if it does legitimately mess up.
The base goggles are also well-designed. I’m no expert on water goggle quality, but the Form goggles held up well in my test swims, keeping water out and preventing the glass from fogging up. Form also includes several different bridge pieces, so they’re adjustable for different-sized heads. The design also lets you flip the goggles over, allowing you to wear them with the display on either eye.
The whole thing looks and wears like a standard pair of swim goggles, too. I didn’t notice any extra weight from the display while swimming. While the non-removable display module is definitely noticeable, I didn’t get any double-takes from anyone at the pool for being some sort of aqua-cyborg.
Do you want a device that can do everything or one that does one niche thing very well?
It’s that emphasis on solving these swim-specific problems that defines the Form Goggles, for better or for worse, because that’s all they can really do. A Fitbit or an Apple Watch can track swimming, running, and biking, and a number of other fitness activities for a similar cost, while also working as an everyday step and heart rate tracker. They also can provide day-to-day step and heart rate data and function with notifications, music control, and everything else a smartwatch typically provides.
It’s almost like the difference between buying an iPad or buying a high-end Kindle: do you want a device that can do everything or one that does one niche thing very well? (The obvious caveat there is that a lot more people are serious about reading than competitive swimming or participating in triathlons.)
If you’re a serious swimmer — someone who’s swimming competitively, training for a triathlon, or just takes their everyday workout seriously — the Form goggles are a great option for you. But if you’re only a casual swimmer, you’ll likely get more benefit from an Apple, Fitbit, or Samsung jack-of-all-trades device than you will from this master of one.
Photography by Chaim Gartenberg / The Verge.
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