Could heart-rate-sensing coaching headphones someday replace smartwatches as the next fitness trend? Some companies are trying, and the LifeBeam Vi makes its claim that ears are better because of audio coaching. The Vi is now available at retail, after launching on Kickstarter a year ago. The cost, $249 (equivalent to £200 or AU$330), is similar to many fitness smartwatches.
In everyday use, the Vi is a pair of neckband-style Bluetooth headphones with audio developed in partnership with Harman Kardon. They have volume controls, and last about 7 or 8 hours.
But when used with a connected app, the headphones track heart rate, pace and distance using your phone's GPS. The headphones automatically sense when they're in your ears, and a touch-sensitive dedicated button brings up AI voice feedback on the fly, like Oakley's Intel-powered Radar Pace earphone-sunglasses.
I've given a pair a try, and am working on a review (heads-up: I'm not a runner). But the Vi's design is meant to be friendly and encouraging to newcomers.
I slid the buds into my ears, and a twangy female voice encouraged me to start pairing my headphones, and set up my fitness goals. Vi's voice is provided by a real person who LifeBeam used to record all the AI interactions.
The Vi's audio sounds OK for headphones, but the flexible neckband's rubberized design sometimes feels hard to rest comfortably. The Vi's earbuds magnetically attach to the band when not in use, or clip together like a pendant. The headphones charge via Micro-USB, and are sweat- and splash-resistant.
LifeBeam's CEO Omri Yoffe told me that Vi's voice AI is currently designed for outdoor GPS runs only, but will be upgraded for indoor runs later this year. Eventually, the goal is for the Vi to work for all types of workouts. But, at the moment, it's strictly a training device for outdoor runners.
The Vi headphones can play your own own music during workouts, but also hook into Spotify and will eventually recommend playlists to fit your runs. LifeBeam's also experimenting with some gamified music features: The Vi already experiments with playing rhythms to encourage runners to match the beat, and future updates will pick music with beats that fit the desired running pace for the workout.
The Vi app runs on iOS or Android, and connects to Google Fit, Apple Health and Strava. It's on sale only through LifeBeam's website now, but will hit Best Buy and Amazon online by the end of April (with retail stores by midyear).