The Edge

Chris Burkard's Fitbit Challenge

Hiking a marathon a day in Yosemite with the pro photographer to launch Fitbit's newest fitness challenge

Chris Burkard's Fitbit Challenge

Photographer Chris Burkard says one of his most difficult assignments was a seemingly straightforward gig from Fitbit: capture inspirational moments from three trails in Yosemite. Photo: Courtesy of Fitbit

Professional photographer Chris Burkard has shot surfing all over the globe, including above the Arctic Circle and while being hunted by grizzly bears in Kamchatka, Russia. 

But he says one of his most difficult assignments was a seemingly straightforward gig from Fitbit: capture inspirational moments from three trails in Yosemite.

The idea, according to Fitbit, is to populate the new Adventures feature in its app with a virtual reward system that goes beyond step counting and badges or other classic gamification carrots. While some of us tracker wearers respond positively to leaderboard rankings—where we see friends and family hit specific benchmarks and respond by trying to outrun/walk/cycle/step them—others prefer not to share their metrics. According to Fitbit, the latter group tends to miss their fitness targets, moving as much as 30 percent less than their more competitive peers.

So the company wants to give all users challenges that don’t have to be shared but are visually stunning and transformative—you get a new photo, plus other rewards, as you hit new challenge benchmarks. 

The ultimate goal is to create a sort of virtual-reality world tour of gorgeous places. The first step began this spring with a team led by Burkard. They spent about two weeks hiking in Yosemite and logging nearly a marathon each day on three trails: Vernal Falls, Valley Loop, and Pohono.

“It was actually really overwhelming. Stop and think of what’s ‘inspirational’ in a place like Yosemite,” says Burkard, chuckling. “You have to pull yourself back and go through every trail, and then script every spot and every day. You have morning and evening light, and then, every few thousand steps, you have to think about a rewarding view—what would you stop and look at and not want to miss on this trail?”

Users choose a challenge in the Adventures portion of the Fitbit app: one of the three trails, each with their own corresponding step goals (15,000 for Vernal Falls, 24,000 for Valley Loop, and 42,000 for Pohono). 

Start walking, running, or hiking. Every few thousand steps, you get a new panoramic shot from Burkard that corresponds to where you are on the actual trail. Your phone vibrates to alert you that you’ve reached a new milestone. If you raise your phone to look at the image, you can actually pan for a nearly full-surround view. For longer step challenges, calibrated on your daily step targets, you’re given more than one day to reach the end. 

“We used Sony’s panoramic function [on some Sony cameras],” says Burkard. To be sure users get the best possible perspective, all scenes were shot in ten different aspect ratios, including pano, 5:1, 3:1, and 6:1. 

The end goal, Burkard says, “is to create a lust for getting out of your office and into the wilderness.” Fitbit says it’s waiting to hear what wearers think before rolling out other programs, including guided fitness challenges, in Yosemite and other wild places. 

The next phase of Adventures debuts in mid-September, when the Fitbit app will include the entire route of the New York City Marathon. This will include immersive, surround-view scenes from the route and, like the Yosemite portion, multiple distance goals, cool scenes, in-app challenges, and facts about the location.  

Adventures will eventually include destinations from across the world. Burkard hopes that means shooting as many of the national parks as possible. 

“I’ve got a list already,” he says. “The only way we will get people to care about these places is to [get them to] understand what it’s like to be there—to want to be there. If we can do that and get them motivated, that’s a huge win for personal fitness and for our parks.”

Filed To: Fitness, Gear, Design and Tech, Yosemite, Photography

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