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Wearables have an easier time measuring heart rate from the ear than the wrist. That’s one of the reasons companies such as LifeBEAM have turned to headphones, rather than watches, to detect heart rate and other information.
This is a growing market. A report released by Juniper Research earlier this month predicts hearable devices in use will increase by 500% during the next five years to reach 285 million. Biometric or fitness headphones are expected to drive a good portion of this growth.
Essential reading: Top biometric headphones
Founded in 2011, LifeBEAM’s first products tracked heart rate and blood flow by embedding sensors in helmets. The company’s CEO Omri Yoffe told me their technology was originally developed for NASA and the Air Force to measure Pilots’ and Astronauts’ biometrics and give them vocal feedback in real time on their body performance.
In the summer of 2016, LifeBEAM turned to crowdfunding to fund development of their biometric headphones called Vi. The $1.7 million they raised meant that the headphones became the highest-funded fitness wearable in Kickstarter history. The product was launched in early 2017 and is now available to all.
Designed for people who want to improve or begin their fitness goals, these buds offer a true AI personal trainer experience. They actually sound like a friendly female person and not a robot, dishing out real-time advice, insights on injury prevention and more. You can talk to them, too!
Can a pair of headphones be as good as a real-world personal trainer? These are my impressions after using them for a month and nearly 30 miles of running.
In the box, Vi arrives with the headphones, a selection of different sized silicone fins and ear gel tips, and a micro-USB charging cable. You’ll also find a small plastic case to house the fins/tips and a carrying pouch to store everything when not in use.
The major design difference between Vi and most other headphones on the market, is that Vi takes the shape of a neckband with a thin wire extending to each earbud. Personally, I am not a fan of the collar-type look, but at 43 grams these headphones are very lightweight and soft to the touch. They look great, too. The ends of the neckband and earbuds are magnetic, and rather usefully they snap together into place. This helps to avoid tangled wires when not in use.
The rubbery U-shaped piece bends to the shape of your neck and is very comfortable to wear, even for long runs. The bend and flex also allows for easy storage. Very quickly, I found myself leaving my regular headphones at home and wearing Vi for listening to music on the go. The buds feature a sophisticated, subtle design that looks equally good on a suit or a running shirt, and the Harman Kardon audio quality is top-notch.
When you first start using the headphones, its a good idea to take some time to pick the right size earphone gels and fins to ensure a good fit. To receive accurate readings on your heart rate, the buds need to reside snuggly in your ear. You’ll find there is a bit of trial an error involved. I started off with the smaller sizes, but transitioned to a bigger size after a few training sessions. The other part of the headphones that is adjustable is the length of the cable so its worth spending some time getting this right, too.
The neckband has three physical buttons. The middle multi-function button is used to power on the device, play music and take calls. Above and below it are Plus and Minus buttons which are used to increase or decrease the volume and skip tracks. I found them all easy to find and press with my thumb, but you’ll need to remember which is which because its not easy to tell the difference purely by touch.
In addition to the physical buttons, you can control the device with your voice. The automatic speech recognition is triggered by lightly tapping the right bud. More on this in a moment.
The gadget measures heart rate using an optical heart rate sensor in the left earbud. The sensor emits light in a specific wavelength to the tissue of the tragus in the ear, and the reflective light is captured by the receiver of the sensor. The left bud also houses a 6 axis accelerometer and gyrometer for tracking movement, and a barometer for keeping tabs on elevation. There is no built-in GPS, but Vi is capable of tapping into your smartphone for this. The right bud has an earbud touch sensor for voice trigger and both buds have an in-ear detection sensor.
LifeBEAM says, depending on use, the headphones can keep going 7 to 8 hours on a single charge. I found this pretty much to be the case. This is fairly decent battery life and means you don’t need to go through the hassle of charging after every training session.
To fully refuel the gadget, it takes about 90 minutes. The cap on the right side of the neckband twists off to reveal a USB charging port. When the indicator light on the neckband turns green, you are good to go.
The buds are sweat-proof and able to withstand most weather elements. In my tests they survived heavy rain with no issues, but don’t plan on taking them swimming with you.
Right now these headphones differ very much from the competition. This is because they unify three products into one – a tracker, earphones and trainer. You get a fully featured fitness device; a pair of premium earphones; and a free coaching service with personalised content.
The accompanying iOS and Android smartphone app is your companion during and after workouts. It shows real-time stats, allows you to set goals and keeps tabs on your progress.
When you first launch the app, you will need to go through a brief and fairly standard setup process. Power on the headphones by pressing the multifunction button and pair the earbuds with your phone in the Bluetooth settings. This is when you’ll be greeted by Vi for the first time.
What will strike you from the outset is her pleasant tone. Forget about the robotic voice we have grown so accustomed to. No, Vi actually sounds like a human. Her voice is perfectly natural, very friendly and actually manages to convey emotion in a bizarre sort of way. The actress LifeBEAM has hired to provide the voice has really done an excellent job. Don’t plan on having conversations with Vi, though. That’s not what she is about. This is essentially a Siri for workouts, providing you with advice and responding to a pre-set list of voice commands.
During the setup process, you’ll need to fill in the usual vitals data such as your age, weight, height, gender and fitness level. Then you’ll be asked to specify your name. Vi will decide if she can pronounce it and if not she will ask you to choose a nickname from a list. I chose ‘Buddy’ as Vi was not too confident with my non-American name. There are numerous other settings that can be tweaked such as switching running warm-up on/off, setting and enabling beacon updates, choosing Vi’s chattiness level and more.
A workout can be launched via the app or voice command. If you simply start running, Vi will quickly pick up that you have increased your pace and will automatically start the session. This is a small but nice luxury. Same goes for ending your workout. Even stopping to tie your shoelace during your run or waiting for a traffic light will pause the session. The buds often start a workout with a “pick-up” line relating to your own context such as the real time weather, what you did last session or what she suggests for today. Prior to your run you can also set how far, or how long, you want to run.
During training, the headphones keep tabs on your heart rate, speed, pace, step rate, power, effort zone, duration in run, distance in run, time and location. Vi’s heart rate data, once you properly position the left earbud’s optical sensor, is within 2-3 beats per minute to what you would get with a chest strap.
However, if not positioned correctly, its an entirely different story. Once or twice, halfway into my session I found my heart rate was 180+ per minute! Spending some more time choosing the perfect fins and gel tips resolves this issue, so make sure you set some time to get this right. It would be great, though, to have some audio feedback before each run to let you know if your heartbeat has been detected correctly.
Where VI really shines, though, is in interpreting your data and giving you tailored suggestions. For me, these ranged from telling me to increase or decrease my steps per minute, congratulating me at times when I was doing something right, telling me not to slouch and more.
All of these are small tips but they add up to shave seconds of your running time and reduce the risk of injury, particularly at the beginner or occasional-runner level. A few sessions in I learned that my cadence was too low. Just that one simple change, transitioning to shorter, quicker steps, has enabled me to improve my running times in the past few weeks.
Some of the things Vi came up with truly surprised me, such as warning me of incoming rain or telling me that my step rate over the past week was lower than usual. The app connects to Apple Health so can ‘borrow’ data on sleep, weight, steps and more. In recent days she is in the holiday spirit telling me Christmas riddles during my running sessions! I was not good at any of them but it did help pass the time.
Although you’ll start to get general guidance right from the beginning, to gain full use of the tailored coaching you will need to clock in two hours of actual training time. Only then will Vi start offering more personalized advice tailored to your primary workout goal. The available options are Improve Fitness, Lose Weight, Go Farther, Go Faster, Reduce Stress and Maintain Fitness. I chose Improve Fitness.
For example, once Vi learns your typical pace and heart rate she will to say things like “Alright, you’re at your cruising speed.” Instead of heart rate zones, its Effort Guide has a Recovery pace, Hustle and Beast mode and Vi will let you know when you move between these zones. She will also at times ask early into a run whether you want to push in the session or take it easy.
My main problem with running is not the physical aspect, but the sheer boredom of putting in kilometer after kilometer with little to keep my mind occupied. For most people, the solution is listening to music. But for me, Vi turned out to be a much better option. The friendly banter added a new dimension to my workouts and I was actually interested in what she had to say. You actually start to forget that you are listening to programmed AI software and not a real person.
The buds will cheer you on and push you to achieve your goals, but not in a nagging sort of way. At times, I actually wished she was more talkative. Despite selecting the chattiest option, Vi would sometimes go strangely quiet at me at times. Just when I would start to wonder whether the battery was out of juice, she would quickly perk up and chime in with instructions or a note on my progress.
As mentioned, the smart buds functionality is triggered by voice commands. For example, “Vi how am I doing?” will be met with the buds giving an update of current stats. “Vi step to the beat” will trigger her cadence coaching capabilities. With this command, the buds use audio beats to keep you in pace and can also connect to your Spotify account and suggest workout playlists which really helps to get your cadence right. Other commands you can bark out include “heart rate”, “speed”, “pace”, “start Effort Guide”, “end workout” and more. LifeBEAM is constantly working on expanding this list.
Essential reading: On a mission to democratise personal wellness, interview with LifeBEAM CEO
But its all not entirely without fault. Running with these headphones in two different cities in recent weeks, I found that Vi doesn’t always know when you’re speaking. It really depends on your surroundings so don’t be surprised if you find yourself raising your voice in order to be heard. At times, I found myself not answering her questions as I did not want people staring at the strange man shouting at himself.
Occasionally, the right bud required multiple taps before it woke up, and the response time sometimes had a lag so there was temptation to start speaking early. More recently I felt Vi was getting better at understanding my voice. Whether this is due to over-the-air software updates or I’ve learned to speak in a way that allows her to understand me better, I don’t know.
In the month that I’ve been using the buds, a firmware update has introduced a Beta treadmill mode, additional voice commands, off-training notifications, step count and heart rate zone insights, and more. There is also a Beta walking and cycling option. Updates planned for the next two months include personalized training plans sent to you by email, social training, more step-to-beat songs and splits data. Later in 2018 LifeBEAM is planning on adding guided mindfulness sessions and all-day wellness guidance. This means Vi will likely continue to get better with time.
As mentioned, Vi does also work as standard pair of Bluetooth headphones allowing you to listen to music or take phone calls. There is noise cancellation when interacting with the microphone and, depending on your settings, removing one ear-bud will decrease the sound volume while removing both will pause music playback. During a workout you can choose between Spotify and Apple Music, and pick from your saved playlists from the app.
The audio powered by Harman Kardon offers professional-level listening experience. The headphones probably can’t match the expensive non-sports bluetooth headphones when it comes to sound quality, but as fitness buds go they are right up there with the best of them. In fact, they’re probably the best sounding workout headphones I’ve used. There is plenty of bass for my taste, and everything sounds crisp and clear.
Following some bad experiences, I’m now cautious when it comes to crowdfunded hardware. But I found Vi’s design and quality to be top-notch, coming across as a second or third generation product.
Comfortable to wear, these buds do a decent job when it comes to tracking your workouts. They provide helpful advice on how to improve your running technique, reduce the risk of injury and meet your goals. But more importantly, this is probably the first voice assistant I’ve used that is actually pleasant to interact with.
I consider myself to be a fairly active person but have always struggled with running. I simply get bored and find excuses not to go. After using these buds for a month I now look forward to my run days. It’s amazing how motivational a voice in your ear can be.
Vi also delivers when it comes to listening to music and taking calls. The Harman Kardon technology makes for pretty sweet sound quality.
There is clearly a lot to like about these headphones. I asked LifeBEAM CEO Omri Yoffe about the excellent user reviews and he said this is mainly due to the quality of hardware. He added that once users hear Vi for the first time, they truly feel she’s not another generic audio coach or app and are ignited by the experience. This was my impression as well.
I couldn’t help but feel, though, that people who will get the most out of Vi are the occasional runners or those just starting out. Advanced runners or those with more complex training schedules may be left wanting a bit more. Its price-tag puts it in the mid-range running watch territory which probably offer more right now when it comes to the post-run stats analysis. That said, at the very heart of this device is a set of quality earphones, so if you’re an advanced runner in the market for bluetooth earbuds, they represent a great option.
Right now Vi brings a lot to the table, and LifeBEAM is dishing out regular software updates so there is plenty to look forward to. The buds clearly hold a lot of potential and offer a glimpse into what the running technology will look like in the years to come.
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