Moves tracks daily walking, bike riding, running without any input from the user at all.

The beauty of the physical activity app called Moves is how little physical activity it requires. That's not an accident. The initial prototype had to be turned on and off whenever users wanted to start and stop tracking their movements, says co-founder Sampo Karjalainen of Helsinki, Finland. Yet this tiny amount of effort was more than most people could remember to do.

"That challenged us to think: could there be a way to make it work all the time in the background?" says Karjalainen.

Challenge accepted. The public version of Moves, released in early 2013, could not be any simpler to use. Turn on the free app, leave your smartphone in your pocket or purse, and check it again at the end of the day. All the while, Moves will measure how far you walked, biked, ran, and traveled by transport — without any input whatsoever.

Personal fitness trackers such as Nike's Fuelband, Fitbit, and UP by Jawbone have become quite popular among city residents who want to stay on top of their daily physical activity. But these devices require users to purchase the gadget (often a wristband), synchronize it with a data app, take it with them, and charge it back at home. Using Moves, by contrast, is as easy as taking your smartphone everywhere you go — which of course you already do.

"Casual people, who are not that interested in using a lot of effort in tracking, find those gadgets a little too much work," says Karjalainen. "We think the smartphone is a great existing platform. Pretty much everyone is already having one and carrying it wherever they go."

Moves knows the way you're moving primarily based on what Karjalainen calls the "acceleration profile" of certain activities. In essence, the app distinguishes among walking, riding, running, and moving by any other form of transport by the way a phone shakes and jiggles. When acceleration alone isn't enough to identify a type of movement, the app uses GPS to calculate location and deduce travel mode by speed.

The downside to this approach is that Moves is not the most accurate tracker on the market. Some users have found that it records different distances on different days for the very same route. Karjalainen acknowledges this limitation and says it's a result of using GPS as seldom as possible to conserve battery power. The benefit is that most people find they can run the Moves app all day on a single overnight charge.

Moves pairs its simplified approach with a minimalist display. The app shows users how far they've traveled by various modes, and sometimes logs where they started and stopped, and little else. Recently Moves added a calorie counter, and the latest version includes some sharing functions, but for the most part the app leaves out the bells and whistles.

(Moves is available for the iPhone, with an Android version set for release in September, says Karjalainen.)

Of course, some people want to do more than see a screenshot of their physical activity. They want to improve it. In fact, the inspiration for Moves came when co-founder Aapo Kyrola realized that he wasn't getting much exercise as a doctoral student in machine-learning from Carnegie Mellon University. (Shocker!) Eventually Kyrola sat down with Karjalainen to discuss how to motivate himself — the two had previously collaborated on a virtual world called Habbo Hotel — and Moves was born.

So even as Moves embraces a laid-back style, its underlying goal is to help people draw insights about their behavior and increase their physical activity. This week the app will take another step toward that aim by releasing a catalog of "connected apps" that enhance the data captured by Moves (with a user's permission). These integrated programs include exercise incentives, habit analysis, and personalized data visualization.
 
Karjalainen realizes these options require a commitment at odds with the app's hands-off manner.
 
"It's a double-edged sword," he says. "We want to keep it very easy, but we should really start to deliver those insights and really help people understand their lives."
 

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