Weight Your Turn was the first project I worked on during my time in college. WYT consisted of two phases, spanning multiple years. The first phase was to create a device for weight-lifting equipment that would allow users to signal how long they were using equipment for. The second phase, pivoted into collecting analytics from users in weight rooms. Ultimately the second phase of WYT morphed into Smart Gym which our team worked on in the UW-Madison IoT Lab.
During my time in the UW-Madison SERF's weight room, I noticed a recurring pattern among members. When someone would walk away for a rest between sets, someone else would walk up to the equipment/machine and either immediately take it over or look around confused as to whether or not it was free. One night while I was walking home from the weight room, I had an idea for a device that could solve this problem. I immediately sketched it out on the back of a flyer before I went to bed.
The concept behind the device was simple. It would attach to any piece of equipment or machine in the weight room. Then users could use push-buttons to input how many sets they planned on doing on the machine. Between sets the device would shine red if the user still had more sets to do, and would shine green if the user had completed her sets and the equipment was now open.
Realizing my limitations in product design, I began looking for someone to help me build out this product concept. I found that person at a Transcend meeting in Matthew Starr, the current CEO and founder of Rally Energy. Together Matt and I worked to complete an initial prototype of the device. We competed in the Qualcomm Innovation competition & while we didn't make it past the first round, the experience was priceless.
After spending the summer at my internship in Connecticut I returned to campus in the Fall of 2014 determined to make Weight Your Turn a reality. Matt had turned his focus to Rally Energy, so I needed to find someone else to add to the team. I had already developed a new concept for WYT centered around measuring the exercises people completed on equipment. I was manning the Transcend booth (are you seeing a trend here) at the engineering student org fair when by a stroke a fate I met Josh Cherek. After a "casual" 1 hour conversation, I realized that Josh and I needed to work on projects together.
We quickly got to work designing the prototype for a device that could track the reps that a user did on different pieces of equipment. The device was relatively straight forward and had following parts:
- 2 Ultrasonic distance sensors: for tracking movement
- Particle Photon: for wirelessly transmitting data from sensors
- 3D printed case: to house/protect compontents
Shortly after we created our first prototype we caught wind of a new mobile app on campus called 'How Full is the Serf' that had amassed several thousand downloads. The app displayed how many people were in different spaces in the gyms around campus. We felt that the app fit alongside WYT and the idea of a "Smart Gym Ecosystem" was born. I pictured a gym where members could plan the best hours to visit, map out the best order to complete their workouts and track everything seamlessly while having all of their fitness data stored on their phone. Josh and I reached out to the app's creator Zach Vander Velden, and the three of us joined up to work together.
We competed in the Qualcomm and Burrill business plan competitions at school to no avail. We had some interest from gyms, but our prototype wasn't nearly accurate enough. Initially we were going to double down on improving sensors for tracking weight training, however multiple judges suggested we may want to consider using our devices for general occupancy tracking inside of different building spaces. This lead us to a major pivot and what I will just label Phase X since it was almost a completely different idea from what WYT started out as.
Occupancy tracking was an extremely enticing path to chase. With the focus on IoT and continually gathering data, we felt that the potential for a device that could track occupancy was extremely high. However, we learned quickly just how difficult it is to build high-quality sensors at an affordable price. Having been scared away from hardware, we shifted our focus to software, and pursued the idea of building the software tools that would allow companies to use existing sensors/cameras to better analyze the traffic in different spaces. Unfortunately, almost all of the sensor companies out there were built on business models that involved selling their sensors for free and then charging for their custom software. To move into this space we would have to build the sensors ourselves, which was beyond any of our skill-sets. We were working on recruiting a professional to join our team, however summer was upon us. The three of us accepted internships in different states and decided not pursue the idea further.
There is one company that has had a lot of success with this concept called 'Density.io'. At the time of this writing they just secured $4 million in funding.
While we didn't have much tangible success with Weight Your Turn, I truly feel that this project drastically changed my life for the better. In the past I had thought of many different ideas, but had failed to act on them. With WYT, that all changed the night I decided to draw my idea out on a piece of paper. That drawing lead to virtual mock-ups, which then lead to physical mock-ups, and then finally to functioning pieces of hardware. I learned how to form well-rounded teams, how to talk to potential customers, pitch to potential investors and about different pieces of technology that could make our ideas a reality.
Overall Weight Your Turn laid the groundwork for much of my future success in college. I strongly feel that a big reason I secured my first internship with Dell was because the project had given me real-world expertise that other students my age simply didn't have. I am also proud to say that we learned from our mistakes and the "failure" of WYT motivated Josh & I to adjust our strategy. These adjustments gave way to an extraordinary period where we collectively won $23,000 in prize money, including first place and $12,000 at the Qualcomm innovation competition that had completely shut down WYT for two years in a row.
Needless to say, whenever I have an idea these days I don't just let it fester in my brain. Instead, I grab my phone or the nearest pen & paper to jot down my thoughts. More than anything, that is the ultimate gift I received from working on Weight Your Turn.