Workout Machines Get a Silicon Valley Upgrade. But Is the Price Right?

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Paul Wright, a smiling, impeccably jacked personal trainer, stared at me from the large screen mounted to the wall. He was waiting for me to start my next set of biceps curls.

The screen was part of a new weight-lifting machine from Tonal, a San Francisco start-up. The system combines software and an interactive LED screen with electromagnetic weights and cables to create an experience that does not rely on plates, barbells and gravity. Tonal had sensed that my last set of curls was too easy, and helpfully — perhaps sadistically — added more weight for the next set.

I grumbled about the weight, but realized Mr. Wright couldn’t hear me any more than Tamilee Webb could hear me griping through a “Buns of Steel” VHS tape in the 1990s. The video of him was a recording, too. But as I grimaced and sweated through the reps, I noticed they were precisely the right level of difficulty. The machine knew my strength better than I did. Tonal’s chief executive, head of marketing, public relations representative and another trainer eagerly looked on.

The Tonal machine is very cool, I told them — and, at $2,995, very expensive.

Home fitness machinery, in all its bulk, was once relegated to the garage or the basement. Now, with a little help from Silicon Valley engineers, it is moving onto the wall. In recent weeks two tech start-ups, backed by millions of dollars of venture funding, have introduced sleek wall-mounted fitness systems that stream workouts into their customers’ living rooms, bedrooms, dens, foyers or home offices.

Tonal began taking orders in August with plans to ship machines in September. Mirror, a fitness start-up based in New York City that has $38 million in investor money, will introduce its product at a conference in San Francisco this week. The Mirror product is a wall-mounted device that streams yoga, Pilates, barre, cardio and strength workouts into a customer’s home.

They are among the first start-ups to pounce on the success of Peloton, a stationary bike start-up that investors recently valued at $4 billion. Peloton blends the hardware of a bike with the software of a video streaming subscription and the content of spin classes. Its skyrocketing growth has made investors wary of missing the next big thing in fitness.

Still, all of the companies face a big unanswered question: Are enough people willing to pay premium prices to justify the giant business investments?

Peloton has built its company around a $1,995 bike and a $39 monthly subscription. Tonal’s system requires a $49 monthly subscription on top of the $2,995 for the machine and an optional $495 in accessories. Mirror’s machine is $1,495 and requires a $39 monthly subscription.

There may be limits to the market for high-end home fitness equipment, particularly as more competitors rush in and copycats undercut the tech companies on price. For example, Nautilus, which makes treadmills, stationary bikes and Bowflex weight-training systems, offers apps with features like those from the tech companies without requiring a subscription. (Bowflex home gyms start at $1,599.)

“Peloton has demonstrated very enviable growth in the industry, but has an extremely high price point for tech that shouldn’t cost that much,” said Rommel Dionisio, an analyst at Aegis Capital who covers Nautilus. “You can buy exercise bikes for $99 on Black Friday.”

Tonal’s and Mirror’s founders are fluent in Silicon Valley’s grandiose language of changing the world, a requirement for raising large sums of venture capital.

“We didn’t just take a weight machine and stick a sensor on it,” Aly Orady, Tonal’s chief executive, said. “We’re fundamentally reinventing strength training.”

Brynn Putnam, founder and chief executive of Mirror, said fitness was the first of many uses for Mirror’s technology. The screen, she said, could eventually offer interactive media on fashion, beauty or meditation.

“We’re looking to be the next screen in people’s lives,” she said. “We desire to be an immersive platform, not just a piece of gym equipment.”

Each product incorporates technology. Tonal’s workout programs are customized to the user’s goals, ability and level of commitment. Its “digital weights” automatically log each movement.

Mirror recommends classes based on a user’s preferences and goals. It also offers live classes, streamed onto the screen, and allows exercisers to interact in limited ways with fellow classmates and the instructor.

But the technology doesn’t overcome some longstanding problems with home fitness systems. There is no instructor in the room to correct poor form when lifting heavy weights or doing tricky yoga poses.

Tonal’s practice of automatically assigning weights based on performance and encouraging exercisers to push their limits is both convenient and motivating — but could also be dangerous. The machine’s handles have buttons that release the weights, as well as an option for “spotting,” which will reduce the load if the machine senses it is too difficult.

Mirror’s screen gives exercisers cues to work harder or ease off based on their heart rate, while offering workout options tailored to a person’s injuries or pregnancy. Mirror also has the option for one-on-one training sessions, which use the device’s camera, for an extra $40 to $75.

Both wall gyms are hoping that various forms of digital engagement — progress reports, virtual “high fives” and encouragement from instructors — will keep exercisers coming back.

If that doesn’t work, the guilt from their credit card bills may do the trick.

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