Athletes won’t lace up the latest product from Boston-based shoemaker New Balance; instead, they’ll strap it on.
It’s a smartwatch called RunIQ, powered by chips from Intel Corp. and software from Alphabet Inc., parent company of Google. Introduced last week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the RunIQ is a tool for serious athletes, and a big bet by New Balance that it can win a major share of the nascent market for wearable fitness devices.
New Balance executive vice president Chris Ladd said the RunIQ, which goes on sale in February, is just the first in an upcoming family of digital products to help elite athletes record and analyze every aspect of their workouts.
“Athletes are really using data now to improve performance,” said Ladd. “In order to be an innovative company for athletes, we realized we need technology-driven solutions.”
RunIQ will retail for $300, and New Balance has teamed with a European headphone maker to offer a special wireless Bluetooth headphone for $110 a pop. But at those prices New Balance is wading into a crowded field of wearable devices that is growing at modest rates, and mostly for more modest fitness bands that cost much less.
Worldwide, consumers bought some 23 million wearable devices in the third quarter of 2016, up 3 percent from the previous year. And low-end devices, mostly used as fitness aids, accounted for 85 percent of the total market, according to Framingham-based research company IDC Corp.
Market leader Fitbit of San Francisco makes slim wrist bands that are priced from $60 to $250 and can track a runner’s speed, distance, and heart rate. Fitbit has 23 percent of the global market, according to IDC. Tech giant Samsung is heavily marketing its latest version of Gear Fit 2, a $130 device with similar capabilities.
Meanwhile the higher end of the wearables market hasn’t taken off. Apple and Google had gambled that the next big thing in consumer tech gadgetry would be the smartwatch — a wrist-mounted, touchscreen-controlled computer for the wrist, stuffed with many of the same features found on smartphones — and priced their products in the same league as the New Balance RunIQ, $300 and up.
But the Apple Watch accounted for less than 5 percent of the global market for wearable devices, and the tech giant reported selling 1.1 million watches in the third quarter of 2016.
New Balance said it is targeting RunIQ at serious runners who want to get better and are willing to pay a premium price for a smartwatch that helps them do it.
“We looked at the marketplace,” said Ladd, “and realized there’s a huge hole.”
Built around Google’s Android Wear smartwatch software, the RunIQ watch can communicate with a user’s smartphone using a Bluetooth radio link. Like other devices, it can notify the user of incoming messages or upcoming appointments. But Ladd said that many hardcore runners don’t want to be burdened by a phone. So the RunIQ has a built-in GPS chip capable of generating speed and location without help from a smartphone. It also has 4 gigabytes of flash memory, enough to hold about 50 hours of music, playable over the phone’s Bluetooth system.
Though the watch will work with any standard Bluetooth headset, New Balance teamed up with Danish headphone maker Jabra to develop one of its own. The PaceIQ, which will be sold separately, includes a push button that activates real-time audio readouts of data from the watch — how fast a user is running or how fast her heart is beating.
The battery in RunIQ is supposed to drive the watch through 24 hours of normal wear. But during hard workouts, the device runs flat-out, using its GPS chip to measure speed and distance, while its heart monitor serves up pulse data in real time. Under those circumstances, Ladd said, the RunIQ’s battery can last five hours — long enough for many serious athletes to complete a marathon.
Ramon Llamas, a wearables analyst at IDC, said New Balance is betting elite athletes and amateur wannabes will pay top dollar for an advanced sports smartwatch.
“They’re not so much going after tech fans but more so the fitness enthusiasts who are comfortable with technology,” said Llamas.
He thinks that’s a sizable market and predicted New Balance will land a goodly share of it. “Are we talking about millions of units? Probably not,” he said. “But I could see something in the thousands or maybe the tens of thousands.”
And for New Balance, the watch is just the beginning. Next up later this year are a smart shirt and sports bra, Ladd said. Sensors on the shirt and bra will be able to measure heart rate more precisely than the sensor on the watch, he said. Later, the company will introduce a shoe with a sensor that can collect data about the runner’s gait.
The RunIQ watch will act as a data hub, collecting information from all body sensors and feeding it to a smartphone or even to the Internet, from which coaches, trainers, and doctors can analyze the information and find ways to make an athlete faster or stronger.
“Athletes all want to improve,” said Ladd. “It’s embedded in who we are.”