Transforming the Rowing Machine Experience through Design Thinking

22 March 2019 | Hamilton
Contributed by Mary Taws

Cameron Siou, graduate of the Health Leadership Academy’s Innovation by Design course, went onto apply his newfound design thinking skills to a startup venture.

Cameron Siou has a tradition with his friends every summer: around late August, the group meets up at Toronto’s Harbourfront to row to Centre Island – the last one there buys dinner.

Time spent with good friends and the feel of water gliding against the rowboat’s oars makes this event one of Siou’s favourite days of the year. In fact, the tradition inspired him to develop a machine that helps rowers live this experience 365 days a year.

“Rowing to Centre Island is a tradition that I really enjoyed,” says Siou. “It inspired me to think about how I could bring that amazing experience indoors.”

In 2017, during his undergraduate studies at McMaster, Siou got to work using many of the tools he learned in the Health Leadership Academy’s Innovation by Design (IBD) course. Offered to upper year undergraduate and graduate students, IBD introduces students to design thinking methodology, an approach that focuses more on the process and end user, rather than the solution.

Armed with newfound design thinking knowledge, Siou consulted rowers, friends, colleagues and gym-goers to better understand pain points in the rowing machine experience.

“The consensus was that many people enjoy water-based sports, but don’t like rowing machines,” explains Siou. “The reason was that the dynamic movements you feel on the water were removed in the machine experience.”

One of the people Siou consulted was Mitchell Barran, now a fourth year Kinesiology student and rower on McMaster’s varsity rowing team. Barran says traditional rowing machines can be “boring and monotonous” but necessary for winter training.

Interviewing individuals connected to a given problem is a key tenet of design thinking—something Siou took with him as he launched his entrepreneurial venture.

“The Innovation by Design class taught me how to focus more on process than being goal-oriented, although both are important,” says Siou. “It’s the reason I now experiment with many ideas instead of tunnel visioning and committing to a solution that might not be a good fit for the end user.”

Mitchell Barran, fourth year Kinesiology student and varsity team rower, tries out the Gemini 01 platform at The Pulse.

Once Siou collected feedback from a variety of rowing machine users, he entered into a proof of concept trial with McMaster’s Kinesiology and Mechanical Engineering department.

The result? A dynamic indoor rowing machine that can be found in several facilities, including The Pulse at the David Braley Athletic Centre.

Siou’s company Nfable Inc. developed a new rowing machine platform called the Gemini 01. Initially optimized to work with the WaterRower, the Gemini 01 platform attaches onto the bottom of the rowing machine, adding the tilting aspect of being in a boat. Siou’s technology allows rowers to engage their core and stabilizer muscles, creating a more dynamic rowing experience.

“With the Gemini 01 platform, you need to keep your focus otherwise you’ll start wobbling,” says Barran. “This machine is a new and exciting challenge that gets closer to what it actually feels like on the water.”

Rowers can also connect their rowing experience to the Nfable app, called “Crew Society,” which allows users to track progress over time and challenge friends or family to reach a milestone. The app will launch on the Apple Store later this month.

Effectively, Siou and his friends can now remotely race to Centre Island any day of the year—a possibility that makes Siou chuckle and then beam with pride. He says he’s proud to have created something that will bring people together.

“My main goal is to build an inclusive community surrounding the sport so people of all skill levels can enjoy their time in the gym,” he says. “The gamification of rowing allows anyone to have an effective (and fun) workout no matter their age, location or previous experience.”

Moving forward, Siou has plans for the Gemini 01 platform to be in universities, gym chains, rowing clubs as well as retail distributors. In the more immediate future, you can find the Nfable team working with its partners Row for the Cure and Coast to Coast Against Cancer Foundation to support cancer research and preventative medicine.

3 thoughts on "Transforming the Rowing Machine Experience through Design Thinking"

  1. Robert Edmondson says:

    There is no video link in the article, however, the word “dynamic” seems to mean a tilting function. “Dynamic”, as the word relates to rowing exercise machines, has come to be understood as a dynamically balanced fore and aft movement as described in the patent document of Casper Rekers, the Dutch engineer who invented the dynamically balanced rowing ergometer. RowPerfect , Oartec, and Coffey are three commercially available embodiments of Reker’s patented movement. I also hold a patent for a “gravity return” rowing ergometer which incorporates Reker’s innovation.

  2. Mary Taws says:

    Hi Robert: Cameron Siou, who worked on this platform, confirmed that it is indeed a tilting function. Thank you for the added context around the specific meaning of ‘dynamic’ in the rowing space.

    Please feel free to email me at, and I can connect you with Cameron if you’d like to discuss further.

    Best wishes,

  3. Grardus Oosterhout says:

    Hello Robert,

    Interesting. Dynamical rowing machine with gravity return.

    Did you in addition to the patent also build and used this?

    My name is Grardus Oosterhout. I did the pionering work in 1986/87 on which Cas Rekers continued.

    Gravity return was one of the things I considered in later years to improve the concept further. I am interested if you used it to eliminate the elastic cord or to enhance the dynamical aspect.

    Regards Grardus Oosterhout

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