We're in the thick of a new era in personal fitness. Millions of us are strapping on Fitbits and other specialized wearables, counting our steps, and keeping tabs on how active we are. Yet for all their sophisticated engineering, many of these tools are just glorified pedometers. Ten thousand steps sounds great, but other than making me compulsively check my wrist all day, the Fitbit really doesn't provide the kind of motivation I need to get in shape.
That's what the team behind the new Vi headset is aiming to change. This isn't just another fitness wearable you slap on your wrist that passively keeps track of your stats and leaves the rest up to you. Vi actually interacts with you: it coaches you during your personalized workouts (and even finds music to go with them), checks in on how you're feeling afterwards, makes suggestions to improve your routine, and challenges you to meet long-term fitness goals.
The device has more than quadrupled its fundraising goal on Kickstarter since it launched, and a couple weeks ago I had the chance to test it out. Frankly, the folks at Fitbit should be freaking out. I think I just saw the future of exercise.
Meet "Vi," the Siri of fitness
What makes Vi different from a Fitbit, Pebble, Apple Watch, and every other wearable you've seen is that it's actually like having a personal trainer, only instead of a real person shouting in your ear, you get instructions and feedback from an interactive AI that goes by the name of Vi -- basically, a more enthusiastic, human-like, hardass version of Siri. The device itself resembles a pair of wireless earbuds, tethered to a U-shaped neckband. Those earbuds are capable of a lot more than just pumping out workout jams (although, side note, they were developed with audio pros Harman/Kardon). They have aerospace-grade biosensors that constantly monitor your heart rate, speed, and level of exertion while simultaneously tracking environmental factors like elevation, location, and weather.
A quick note on the heart-rate sensors: LifeBEAM, the company behind Vi, invented the sensors used in fighter pilots' helmets that keep critically close tabs on their vital signs. So, suffice it to say, they know what they're doing. And because the sensors are located between your heart and your brain, rather than on your wrist (as they are with most wearables out there), they're capable of capturing your heart rate with much better accuracy.
Get a workout that's customized for your goals, habits, heart rate, and music taste
Once you're geared up to sweat, you let Vi know (via app, or just speaking aloud into the headset) what sort of workout you're looking for. Want to burn more fat? Improve your running form? Train for a half marathon? Just let her know and she'll adjust accordingly.
During my demo, I asked her to target my ideal heart-rate zone. Once she clocked my resting heart rate, I hopped on the treadmill. As I slowly increased the belt speed per her instructions, she queued up a Coldplay song via Spotify, whose beats per minute matched the pace she wanted me at -- counting off my steps on top of the beat like a metronome to ensure proper form. As she had me speed up she chirped some words of encouragement until I eventually reached my heart-rate goal and began a cool-down.
The whole encounter was surprisingly natural and left me feeling amped. I probably would have opted for a different soundtrack (sorry, Chris Martin), but Vi was paired with the developer's phone instead of mine at the time. Otherwise it would have pulled tracks from my Spotify or Apple Music accounts.
Over time, Vi's software "learns" your workout habits, adapts to your changing needs, and keeps you challenged. Like a real-life trainer she'll occasionally text you in between workouts to make sure you're not slacking. And if she kicks your butt one day, she might follow up with a text later in the day to see how you're feeling, or remind you to get a good night's sleep before a day when she's slated a big race-training run for you. Vi also keeps tabs on the weather, so if it's miserable outside she'll hit you up to suggest you work out indoors rather than skip out altogether.
Vi is ostensibly a workout buddy first and foremost, but its developers told me they designed it to be comfortable enough (and with enough battery power) to pass as an all-day wearable, like its more low-profile wrist-worn competitors. I wouldn't necessarily see myself wearing it any more frequently than I do my headphones (which is, admittedly, a lot), but it's certainly light enough to keep around your neck without issue. Bottom line, it empowers its wearers with actionable intel in real time, rather than just a read-out of flights climbed, steps stepped, and calories burned after the fact.
FYI, they’re now accepting pre-orders for $199, and it's expected to hit shelves in December for around $250.
Your move, Fitbit.
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