In our Wareable 50 roundup, we picked hearables as our 'biggest thing' for 2017 - and things are off to a great start. So far this year we've seen the arrival of Doppler's augmented reality Here One earbuds; experienced Bragi's next big update; and are currently awaiting Waverly Labs to launch its real-time translation hearable, Pilot, this summer.
Back to now and LifeBEAM has announced the launch of its AI voice coaching headphones, Vi. Like Oakley's Radar Pace glasses, Vi is made to guide you and keep you motivated during a workout - but with spades more personality. In fact, Yoffe claims LifeBEAM's AI companion is ahead of all the competition, and from our time spent with her so far, we can attest to her having a fair amount of spark. Also unlike the Radar Pace, LifeBEAM sees Vi as a wear-all-day hearable, for taking calls, listening to music (it's partnered with Harman Kardon on the sound), with plans to roll out more wellbeing features before long.
Like anyone else working on hearables, LifeBEAM took much inspiration from Spike Jonze's Her, but mostly AI's potential to engage with the user by being chatty, funny and friendly - all without sounding like Microsoft Sam (you remember him, right?). Yoffe wanted to build an AI that people would enjoy talking to, using real voice recordings, and claims Vi will "get to know you": after a couple of hours spent with her, she'll start to making more specific comments on your training and beyond, like warning you of weather conditions or even throwing out some political satire.
"Synthesised [text-to-speech] is there and it's not exciting," says Yoffe. "From Siri to other voices it's a very monotonic, boring experience. We understood from day one we needed to bring a powerful, emotional range of voice." Vi can draw activity and sleep data from Google Fit and Apple Health to learn more context about your habits - which should again feed into what she says.
"What truly inspired us when we started experimenting two years ago was seeing people evolve with trainers," says Yoffe, though he admits that Vi isn't in a place to fully replace the human trainer. "We're not sure the technology can achieve what people are achieving with users," he says. "Our goal is not to replace humans."
LifeBEAM plans to expand the device's capabilities to cover more activities in the future, but for now its fitness component is focused solely on outdoor running. Vi uses your phone's GPS to track distance and pace, while the in-ear HR monitors will keep an eye on your beats during your workout.
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If you don't think it sounds like rocket science, you're wrong. LifeBEAM spent years building real-time biometric tracking for pilots in NASA and the US Air Force, before shifting to the consumer space. Yoffe now insists that the inner ear is one of the best places for reading your heart rate. "We are - assuming a good fit - meeting the exact level, plus minus 5bpm at max, usually less, than a gold standard ECG belt," he tells us. "We started from measuring pilots doing 9 G's, measuring their heart from inner ear. Running in California State... it's hard, but it's within our core competence."
When you first "meet" Vi, you can tell her what you're looking for in a fitness companion, be it exercising to lose weight or that you just want to stay active. Currently, Vi doesn't offer up a full training planning, only recommending your next one or two runs. "Paid fitness programs are not successful," insists Yoffe. "You don't find too many people who are registering to programs that really work." However he says that there are plans to roll out an optional motivation feature that will message you and try to keep you more accountable to your goals.
What's perhaps more interesting is the other ways LifeBEAM plans to evolve Vi over time. Yoffe already says this is an all-day hearable but plans are afoot to bring mindfulness features such as guided breathing and concentration techniques to Vi too. "We absolutely see the device as a wellness and fitness platform overall," says Yoffe. And while Vi already syncs up with your Spotify account, there are plans "smarten" this feature by recommending more music based on your activity and, eventually, even shaping your playlist around your heart rate. Yoffe insists, however, that he doesn't see Vi competing with Siri, Google Assistant or even Alexa, but does see her integrating with these platforms and other services, like nutrition trackers.
Smarter AI is transforming fitness devices, but more significant is how much potential lies in those holes on the sides of our heads. "I think the ear is by far the only wearable area in our body to cannibalise and consolidate most of the things you need on a daily basis," says Yoffe. "With the right form factor you can do basically anything you want, from digital assistants to other content, without interfering with the environment."
We're currently putting Vi through its paces, so look out for our full verdict very soon.