Sensoria Fitness Smart Sock review: Good-idea smart socks that stumble right out of the gait
Sensoria Fitness' smart socks -- two pairs of which you buy in a bundle along with the necessary "anklet" and an app -- is one of those great ideas whose real-world execution doesn't size up. It pains me to say it: the bizarre, expensive system for tracking some very specific running behavior trotted itself out of the lab a bit too soon.
In many ways, the smart socks' sewn-in sensors do live up to their promise of collecting more specialized data about runs than most fitness bands can achieve (cadence and foot-strike, anyone?) I also like that you can use a metronome to help keep pace and parse workouts by your shoe selection, if you tend to alternate kicks.
However, the unsightly clip-on anklet makes you lopsided, and mine popped off once, with no way to track its whereabouts. That Anklet of Awkwardness goes toe-to-toe with the semi-unintuitive, sometimes-buggy software that hindered my early runs as the system's Achilles' heels.
Sensoria's price tag doesn't help either. It costs $200 (£133, AU$349) for a starter pack with two sock pairs and that anklet. That's pretty steep for a tracker that really only monitors running and walking (but it's really intended for runs).You can buy two additional sock pairs for $50 or AU$80; That works out to roughly £33.25.
For serious runners with deep pockets and a willingness to shrug off a little ridicule in their footwear fashion, the socks might be worth it for the data-gathering alone -- if you don't require a sophisticated data dashboard. For everyone else, these wearables are a step in the right direction, but need work in terms of comfort, practicality and data presentation before the smart socks achieve their full potential.
Before the run: Setting up the gear
You'll need to make sure you've got the socks, ankle cuff and app squared away before your first run.
If you prefer to run with barely there ankle socks, you're in for a rude awakening. Sensoria's socks aren't just taller, they're also much more conspicuous both on the foot and off. First, they're embroidered with "LEFT" and "RIGHT" labels, which are important for tracking the performance of each foot (one might produce slightly different results than the other).
Next, the sole of each sock has three sensors stitched on the underside -- two located on the ball of your foot and one near the heel -- which I feel when walking in the socks on hardwood floor. This is a necessity, since the sensors are doing the hard work of mapping your pressure points when you run -- something that a wrist-worn device just can't do. After a while, you forget that they're there.
The socks are thankfully antimicrobial and fully machine-washable. Sensoria stands behind a lifetime of at least 60 washes before the textile sensors deteriorate, and estimates that four pairs of socks will carry you through three or four workouts a week for a full calendar year. (That means prepare to buy a supplemental sock pack about six months after after investing in the starter kit.)
More bizarre than feeling sensors underfoot is the Bluetooth-connected anklet that you have to attach to the sock, via magnetized studs that spring out of the material in a little constellation. It doesn't encircle your ankle, but it does hug the curve of your shin. Then -- this is the best part -- you tuck down the sock over the anklet before you start your jog. Sports fashion it is not.
Oh, and here's another condition. A single anklet tracks your movement on one foot, right or left. To measure the other, you'll need to switch sides, or splurge for a second gadget.
That rubbery strip measures roughy 2.5-inch (6.4 centimeter) It's this tool that collects and stores your foot strike data, and shares it to the Sensoria app through a Bluetooth connection. If you have two anklets, you can track both feet; if you have one (like I did), you pick one at a time.
To use the socks, you pull them up along the lower calf, securely affix the ankle cuff, then fold the top of the sock down over the hump to your ankle. Better fold over the other sock too, for good measure.
It looks ridiculous, but how does it feel? Not terrific. The anklet's heft is noticeable (0.96 ounce, or 27.2 grams) and if you're only using one (like I suspect most people will), that makes you feel bulbous and lopsided as you initially put it on. Still, it's cool to watch the pressure sensors do their thing as you follow along in the app.
I should also mention the charger, which is USB on one side and a proprietary blunt-spiked ring on the other. It looks like a tiny spiked bracelet for a goth baby. I'd prefer a more standard charger, like a Micro-USB (or Type C!) setup in case you lose this quirky monstrosity.
Sensoria says that be battery lasts approximately 6 hours of continuous use, enough for many to finish a marathon, or complete shorter training runs during the week. The battery should last about a month on standby, and takes about 1.5 hours to fully charge.
Before you run, you have to make sure you correctly set up the free Sensoria Fitness app, for Android and iOS, and pair the anklet. I didn't do this right the first time, which made my entire data-gathering jog a bust. To be fair, there's a tutorial onboard if you get stuck (and I recommend digging into it), but an app should be clear enough to get through unaided.
Proper setup means you're pairing the anklet on your right and/or left sock to the app. You can also pair a heart-rate monitor if you have one of those, too.
You'll need to build a profile as well, with your height, weight, shoe size, and a bunch of foot- and gait-specific details, like foot width and arch type, pronation and supination tendencies (if your toes turn in or out while running), and additionals like foot rotation, and if you tend to stand and run with your knees pointing straight, inward, or outward.
This is where you also pick your shoe type. Some runners alternate with, say, minimalist footwear or trail-runners. Picking your shoe before a run helps tease out your performance, say if you strike on the ball of your foot more with a low-rise shoe and default to your heel with heavily-cushioned kicks (and also track your mileage per pair). The only problem here was that the app didn't confirm or otherwise indicate that it recorded my shoe until I exited that screen, so I wound up adding the same pair four times -- boo.
The app collects data on your foot landing (ball or heel), cadence (the number of steps you take per minute), pace (how many minutes it takes to run a mile), calories, distance, speed, ascent and total steps. Sadly, it leaves out other data on your running form, like how often you rotate your foot as you tire.
Before you start, you'll also choose your activity (running, walking or other), if your terrain is indoor or outdoor and select the intensity of the virtual coach (from silent to very chatty). Then, you decide if you want a metronome to tock-tock-tock when you're off-cadence. You can also add goals, like a distance, though the sliding scale only gives you targets of 1, 3.1 or 6.2 miles, or a marathon or half-marathon. If you're trying to run 7 miles, too bad.
Finally, you'll need to press Start and wait for the app to ding before it begins recording your stats and route. A tie-in to your music playlist temporarily quiets tunes when the voice "coach" chimes in.
The app syncs with Sensoria online dashboard and, if you use an iPhone, with Apple's Health Kit.
During the run: A system in motion
I went on over half a dozen runs with the socks, at about 5 miles per route. A casual-but-consistent jogger for the last seven years, my opinion shifted as I got used to the system.
The first run was terrible: I thought I had started the run on my app, but hadn't, so it failed to collect any data. The socks felt thick and sweaty, more like light wool hiking socks than they do like the thin, short, barely there synthetic socks that proudly wick away sweat. I noted during cool-down that it was a clammy, though cushioned, ride.
Wearing the anklet on a run...well. First impressions: heavy, scratchy, uncomfortable. My exact thoughts were "only a crazy-obsessive person would wear this." Then, like every rubber fitness band I've ever hated when I first slipped it on, I forgot all about it. Until I stopped and noticed how weird it felt again, and until I peeled it off and noticed some shallow skin marks. Charming. (Admittedly, I mark up easily; you might not have the same issues.)
On my second run, I somehow kicked off the anklet 15 minutes into the jog, despite having snugly folded the sock band down. I didn't discover the loss until I got back from the run, and had no idea where it could have fallen off. A Bluetooth or GPS tracker on the anklet would have surely helped recover the gadget. The understanding folks at Sensoria sent me another testing unit right away, but I expect that a regular customer would have to replace the device.
I've noticed since then that my left shoe sometimes jostles the edge of the cuff on my right ankle (no more than twice a run, tops), but it only popped off the once. I have, however, stopped on occasion to make sure the anklet's still firmly attached; not a great security system if you're training hard for a goal.
Even now, the sock-ankle combo still feels strange and off-balanced when first put them on, but once I start focusing on the jog, that initial unpleasantness dissolves into the background. It's no longer a major issue.
One thing to note: In order for the system to work, you do have to run with the phone either in hand or otherwise strapped onto your body. I do this anyway, because I like to have a phone on me just in case, but Sensoria is going to have to develop a smartwatch-only app that works just as well. Even better is if that cumbersome anklet could transfer running data to your cloud profile as soon as it pairs to a smartwatch or phone, letting you leave a heavy device at home.
Coach and metronome
To test the system, I ran with and without both the virtual coach and the metronome when off-cadence (you can also set it to tock the whole time). If I started with the coach on, it stayed on. When I began the run with nothing and switched settings along the route, it inexplicably failed to kick in. I also never managed to get the cadence metronome right.
One run it ticked at me in the beginning (I purposely set it beyond my speed) and then stopped urging me on, despite my continued pace. Another time, it only came to life only at the end of my run from a point when I had started again after a stoplight, for another block -- even though I had slowed down and even stopped (at lights) at several points before then, and slowed to the same speeds again after.
Sensoria explained in an email: "The metronome kicks in when the actual cadence deviates from the target desired cadence beyond a certain threshold level over a sustained period. If there are cases where you expect the metronome to be active but it was not, it may be due to: 1. Difference in actual and target cadence not being big enough; 2. Sustained time of actual cadence not being long enough."
I'm not convinced either explanation applies to the finicky behavior I experienced.
I did, however, enjoy running with my music integrated with the app, and with a talkative "coach" named Mara. If you've got the metronome on, Mara is really just a female robo-voice that spits out the same stats on things like your pace, steps and speed every so often. If you've set, say, a mileage goal, Mara will vary her routine by commenting on reaching your goal, though she doesn't say much to encourage you (like: "Almost there!").
I wouldn't say that hearing my stats at regular intervals pushed me to adjust my pace, but I did find it interesting to see where I was after a more challenging leg of the route, especially if I was having a tougher or easier run. Monitoring my progress also kept me more motivated, though I would have appreciated if Mara also pointed out any unwanted pronation or supination, and if I started pounding my heels, or was doing an especially good job running on my toes.
Here was another bug. The moment I dictated a voice note while on the go, the Sensoria app quit dispensing with Mara's voice updates. She kept quiet even after pausing and resuming. Harrumph.
After the run: Data and facts
There are two ways to see your data: on the app and on a dashboard. You can view stats at a glance on the mobile app, or tap each square to see a line graph, which you can expand to full screen. Separately, Sensoria shows you a GPS map of your route (which it'll record even without the anklet).
You can also jump on to your online account to view similar stats by activity, and by day, week, month and year. There's a lot Sensoria can do to spruce up this underdeveloped, unsatisfying dash. At the very least, it should at least give you all the line graphs you see in the mobile app, maybe even improve on that by collating performance over time in one easy-to-read graph.
Even better, the dashboard (which you'll probably access from a tablet or laptop's larger screen) should take advantage of all the cool ways you can view data, like a heat map of my route.
It isn't enough to see that half the time I ran on my heels. I want to know exactly where on my route I kept on my toes and where I fell back on old habits. If it's during a short, tough climb, I can accept that. If I broke form because I was tired or zoning, that'd be something I want to work on -- and that's exactly what these smart socks are supposed to be all about.
Potential to grow
By now it should be clear that I think these Sensoria Fitness smart socks are an intriguing, though pricey, system that needs a lot of work. Ultimately, the ambitious system overpromises and underdelivers. I have some suggestions.
- Add Bluetooth/GPS tracking to find anklet if you can't find it (or if it pops off)
- Measure pronation and supination
- Build out the heat map and other dashboard data online
- Actual coaching in addition to status updates, especially for pronation and foot strike location
- Let users set true target goals per sessions, like 7 miles, not just just 6.1 (10k)
- Options to auto-pause or voice pause so you don't lose time during stops
- Instead of tracking just indoor/outdoor courses, expand to treadmill, track, street, trail options
- Work with a watch
- Fix that bulbous anklet
If you're still wondering "Should I buy them?", my answer is no, wait. Although these smart socks do more for runners than fitness bands -- which typically record distance, steps, calories and maybe your heart rate and pace -- right now, the bizarre design, high costs and underbaked software aren't worth the money or trouble. After some more design and engineering work, though, they absolutely could be.
The startup world of wearables desperately needs brave, out-there ideas like this one to collectively develop and grow. Right now, there's a lot of trial and error, and this product is part of that bucket. I look forward to watching Sensoria's smart socks get on track.