Review: Check in with your breath, boost your well-being with Spire

spire reviewIt’s a tiny gray stone, satisfying to hold, zen-like and paired with a beautiful cork charging plate. Attach it to your bra or belt and get ready to discover a new path to calm.

Essential reading: Stress busting wearables to help you chill

Created by a team of scientists at Stanford and winner of the 2014 National Hewitt Design Award, the Spire Stone is a personal breathing sensor. Unlike exercise-oriented fitness gadgets, it tracks respiration patterns and body movements to provide advice geared to emotional and cognitive well-being.


Set up

Spire arrives in a sleek, minimalist white package. Inside are the tracker, round wireless charger, and a white USB-to-microUSB cable. The tracker weighs just 0.8 ounces and measures 1.2 in by 0.6 in by 1.7 in. The plate has an extra USB port, in case you want to charge your phone this way.

After the initial charge, the device needs to be connected via Bluetooth to the Spire smartphone app, which has both Apple (iOS 9 and above) and Android versions. The personal questions asked during the app install are minimal, as is the user-interface. In Settings, you can configure Notification types (vibrate, sound or message).

spire review

In the main section of the app, Breathwave, you can watch a live feed of your breath visualized as a line moving against a blue sky and beach background. Scrolling down brings you to the daily summary, with helpful bars showing minutes spent in various modes – calm, focused, tense, active and sedentary. The Boosts area contains meditations and other audio tracks by mindfulness authorities such as Deepak Chopra and Thich Nhat Hanh.

spire review

For those of us who like things neat and clean, the initial set-up was a pleasing experience. We only tested the Spire with Iphone 6.

The little stone needs to be worn, clip side out, against the skin or close enough to pick up breathing patterns (think inside of belt, running tights, bra).

spire review


The Science

Based on 7 years of research at Stanford’s Calming Technology Lab, the device utilizes the latest scientific understanding on the relationship between breath and the working of the human nervous system. Bad stress triggers our “fight or flight” mode, and repeated exposure can lead to anxiety, high blood pressure, a compromised immune system and worse. Since breathing is the only autonomic function that we can control somewhat, awareness of breath can help us “down-regulate” to a more balanced state of mind and body.

spire review


How Well Does It Work?

The good: Spire shines on picking up your respiration patterns and alerting you

Sliding into hyperventilation as your kid tells you about the school bully’s latest antics? After several minutes, Spire vibrates to remind you to slow down, one breath at a time. Stuck at the desk rewriting the same paragraph for the umpteenth time? Spire nudges you to do something active after an hour of sitting, which might be just the kind of break your brain needs.

We found the device unobtrusive and generally pleasing to use. Spire tracks three types of breathing: tense (“fight or flight”), focus (balanced, i.e. “positive stress”) and calm (parasympathetic, or “rest and digest” state). The daily summaries, particularly when paired with time-sensitive data about patterns (called “streaks”) were revealing, and can be correlated with locations or photos.

Both the vibration level and frequency of messages are customizable.

The guided meditations we tested seemed promising, though those who already practice mindfulness probably already have their preferred approaches. The good news is that the device can work alongside other apps and sound files to provide near real-time information about quality of breathing.

In our tests, using Spire as a meditation aide was fun and encouraged the desired focus on “the here and now.”

spire review

The bad:

Spire at times asks to be repositioned, especially if one is hunched over a desk. That can become annoying. It can be slow to sink with the app. Worse, if the app stays closed for 6 hours, the intervening data is lost.

The stone shape occasionally gets in the way. That happened in a yoga class during some twist poses and forward bends, and trying to slide the clip felt awkward.

The Neutral:

Spire provides no feedback about heart rate, hrv (heart rate variability), or sleep quality. Thus an hour-long run in the woods registered as 60 active minutes, but a Sunday afternoon at home with two kids added another 25 active minutes. These limitations make the tracker good for the mindfulness niche, but less useful for exercise goals.

One confusing part, at least for our tester, was the large quantity of “neutral breathing,” which is described as breathing that does not fit any of the patterns. Was that more about the person or the device?


Conclusion

In a matter of days this tester learned that she was holding in her breath in everyday situations when it was not necessary. That was an eye-opener. A more in depth test would require several weeks or months and one might wonder if, long term, the hope is that Spire would lead to self-awareness that would make the breath tracker obsolete.

Spire Mindfulness and Activity Tracker
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View technical specs

Spire measures what no other tracker on the market does. The device has had a very favorable reception and comes in at an attractive price, particularly if you have an interest in technology and mindfulness.

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