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Exclusive: Wattch is creating a new revenue arm for streaming
The Vancouver-based company is having a “Spotify moment” by creating the exercise rights to your favourite movies.
People, the old adage goes, either work or work out. There’s little time for both, and at the end of a long day, the first port of call is often the couch over the treadmill. While exercising and relaxing are both vital to re-energizing, the pendulum typically swings towards a late-night Netflix binge: globally, the entertainment industry counts over 1.2 billion video subscriptions, while less than 200 million people are signed up at gyms and fitness clubs.
But Tom Waller, co-founder of Wattch Fitness, doesn’t think the time-strapped should need to decide between entertainment and exercise. Instead, he’s creating a brand-new way for people to do both.
Waller is a sports industry stalwart with a talent for innovating high-profile companies. A PhD grad from the prestigious Loughborough University, the Brit-turned-local-boy recognized the niche missing from many global brands: that they’d forgotten to put human-centric design first. First invited to head up research and development at Speedo’s Aqualab, Waller was next poached by Lululemon to start its innovation team, where his ideas repositioned the brand from a women’s yoga retail company to a major player in the well-being industry. Now senior vice president of innovation at Adidas, Waller is in charge of using scientific principles to guide the industry giant forward. All that to say, Waller knows a thing or two about the next big thing in sports.
“If you're a time-poor person, you have a choice to make,” Waller tells Vancouver Tech Journal about his interest in the relationship between TV and exercise. “If you really need to just chill out and watch your favorite show, [your] workout is what's going to be sacrificed. We've surveyed now thousands of people, and entertainment is winning that battle.”
A self-professed “proper nerd,” Waller wanted to dig deeper into the science that linked the physical response to watching movies or TV, and how it correlated with the body’s output when exercising. Looking specifically at neurocinematics and physiological arousal, Waller noted that both sadness and excitement created similar changes in biology, generating heart rate spikes and differential breathing rates.
‘We’re wasting that,” he said. “That could be going into a workout. [...] I thought, why don't we turn what is useful about entertainment – in the fact that it's stimulating, exciting, in the fight scenes, the action scenes: the places where emotionally you have these highs? That's when you [would] work a bit harder, or you don't notice that you're working out.”
In August 2021, Waller joined forces with Travis Stevenson to co-found Wattch Fitness. The company takes new and existing shows and movies, and creates a workout that marries up with the storyline. When Ted Lasso has a panic attack, Wattch nudges you to pedal faster. At the second that Miles Prower slams on the brakes in Baby Driver, so do you. Wattch has looked at narrative dynamics used by a director to shape a movie or TV show from one cliffhanger to the next, and built code that pulls out the storyline as an emotional profile. That data is then transferred to an exercise machine, and forms the foundation of a fitness session.
“The primary outcome is that any piece of content is a workout,” says Waller. “It just doesn’t know it yet.”
Wattch’s model is potentially big business. Unlike video-led apparatus like Peloton, which requires a huge upfront investment in hardware, Wattch’s product works for any Bluetooth-enabled machine. Major content houses are now investigating the company’s business model, and Wattch is in negotiations with a serious Hollywood studio – which has one of the biggest libraries in the world – to transform its collection into workouts.
“We’re encoding a lot of [the studio’s] content,” Waller says. “What’s really interesting is that we’re able to say to them, ‘This title that you love is garbage for exercise. But if you marketed it this way, people would get it.’ So the Hollywood studio is really curious about earning a completely different audience; a completely different environment. And then obviously, for them [it’s] a completely different revenue stream. Because they already sell the same title to hotels, to airplanes, to theaters, to streaming providers, and now they have another arm. So we're kind of co-creating that [...] We’re essentially inventing the exercise rights for content. It's quite exciting. It's a bit of a Spotify moment, really.”
Waller sees the union between entertainment and fitness as a natural progression in the industry. For those shy about getting into the exercise world, the novelty of feeling immersed in a show – and not compromising on TV-watching time – could be a pathway to fitness. For gym rats, cycling along to a Crave movie has the potential to spur longer and harder workouts in order to reach the end of the story.
“If you go to your local gym, when you turn on an elliptical or the treadmill, they have their gym TV,” says Waller. “And now you can see Netflix. So they're trying to do it – it's just that no one has figured out that [entertainment and fitness] are actually connected, except for us. So we believe we are almost like a dating agency between these two worlds. And we're as quickly as we can getting to a place where our ability to encode content is automated faster using our algorithms, and then we can get to some really interesting scale.”
Despite being less than two years old, the company is already honing in on a product that Waller projects will be available to the public by the end of 2023.
“We've built now an app,” Waller says. “It's a stealth app, so it's by invite only. We've done one community poll because we wanted to get people using it, getting some really great feedback. We’ve done a second build now, [with] which we'll do another community sprint before the winter runs out, while we've got everyone's focus. And then we're looking to do a full launch in Q4 of this year.”
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