If you hadn't already heard, the future is voice, and LifeBEAM's Vi headphones are another step in the right direction. If the likes of LifeBEAM, Doppler and Bragi are to be believed, in the not-too-distant future we'll all be walking around with something smart plugged into our ear holes - and honestly, I can't wait.
Hearables are one of the least intrusive forms of wearable tech, and as both voice assistants and fitness tech improve, they'll form a closer camaraderie in our ears.
Read this: The state of translation hearables
LifeBEAM's Vi all about fitness, with an AI designed to feel more human than Siri, Alexa and the rest of the gang. Vi was made with real human voice recordings, the result being a workout coach that feels more alive and personable than most - if not all - others we've tried so far.
Having begun as a Kickstarter campaign in June 2016, it's finally made its way into our hands, but has LifeBEAM made good on the promise of making the "first true artificial intelligence personal trainer"? Read on and find out.
LifeBEAM Vi: Design
The Vi uses the same behind-the-neck design of many other
wireless running headphones. While Doppler, Bragi and Apple are squeezing hearable tech into smaller earbuds, remember that Vi is also packing in a personal trainer, along with heart rate tracking and audio from Harman Kardon.
First of all, let's talk comfort. Vi comes with a range of wingtip options to help you find a good fit, and it's important you do so before setting out on your first run. Vi's heart rate sensors are on point, but you can't guarantee an accurate reading unless it's placed correctly in your ear, so first on the agenda is getting it nice and snug. Handily, there's a short video tutorial in the app to help you get a perfect fit - I'd recommend watching it.
Even outside of running, I've been keeping Vi around my neck just for day-to-day music listening. It's light and comfortable enough to forget it's there, and the earbuds affix to the ends of the neckband magnetically so you don't have them swinging about when you're not plugged in. It's a little fiddly, but you can adjust the length of the wires too, and again, it's probably worth playing with this to limit the possibility of ripping them out mid-workout by craning your neck.
On the neckband you'll find three small buttons, a circular on/off/pause/play button, a plus button, and a minus button. The latter two turn the volume up and down, while a long press will skip/rewind a song. There's also a touch-sensitive pad on the side of the right earphone, which you'll use to interact with the Vi assistant during a workout.
As for charging, you can pop the end off one end of the band to reveal a Micro-USB port, although the end stays attached so there's no risk of losing it or having it fall off mid-jog.
LifeBEAM Vi: Fitness tracking
This is what it's all about. Just how good is Vi as a fitness coach? I've put aside a section later on to discuss the voice assistant specifically, but obviously she's a big part of the tracking too. For the time being, Vi is only for outdoor running, so you won't get much use out of them on the treadmill or with any other types of exercise, though that might change in the future.
On board Vi you've got a pair of optical heart rate sensors - one for each earbud - an accelerometer, and a six-axis gyrometer, which combined will also track your speed, pace and cadence. As for GPS, it takes this from your paired phone - and yes, you'll still need to have your smartphone with you on your run for Vi to work.
LifeBEAM has tried to make an assistant that will offer you guidance throughout your workout, and the first time you pair Vi with the app it will ask you what you're looking for. Do you want to improve your performance? Do you just want to stay fit? Do you have a marathon you want to work towards? This is where you can tell it your performance goals.
However, unlike the Oakley Radar Pace - another coaching hearable - Vi won't set out a training calendar for you. I asked LifeBEAM CEO Omri Yoffe about this, and he said he felt that most users tend to drift away from their schedules, and so for now it's not something LifeBEAM is including. That said, Vi will still give you prompts when she thinks you're falling behind, and serve general pointers on your schedule when you're in a workout. On one week where I took a break from running for a few days, she started my next session by remarking that I had left a longer than idea gap between workouts. Despite her upbeat tone, I could sense the judgement.
When you want to start a workout, you can choose in the app to run to a certain distance, a time, or just set out on a free run. Once you've done that, you'll have a two-minute warmup period, after which Vi will prompt you to pick up the pace for the main event.
We've generally found that in-ear heart rate monitoring is better than that done on the wrist, and LifeBEAM's tech is definitely solid. You'd hope so too: LifeBEAM started out building tech for monitoring vital signs in the aerospace industry, so Vi is effectively fighter-pilot-level heart rate monitoring. Put up against both the Polar H7 or Wahoo Tickr X heart rate straps, it's always been within 5 bpm on my runs, and once I'd perfected the fit, I found it impressively honed.
In both runs below, the first a steady pace and the second one with intervals, Vi (shown left) kept up well with the chest strap (middle) and was even a tad closer than the Garmin 5X (far right), which I also wore alongside.
In this second one, you can see that it kept consistent to the chest strap on those intervals.
I also kept checking my heart rate during the workout itself, and it was always very close to the reading I was getting from the chest strap. GPS tracking was solid when I put it up against the Garmin 5X, but as I said, this will come down to the quality of your smartphone's GPS, as it's not built into Vi itself.
LifeBEAM Vi: The assistant
Before running, make sure the wing is pushed snugly inside the ear
Vi and I have a bit of a love-hate relationship. LifeBEAM has worked hard to give her a personality, and when she works, I actually enjoy her company; when she doesn't, we don't get along. Sometimes I feel like I really do have a smart, dynamic AI in my ear, but too often she fails to pick up what I'm saying or just doesn't recognize my requests, and the illusion is shattered.
Before I expand on voice recognition, a bit about how Vi works during workouts. You can choose how chatty Vi is in the app settings, but to begin with I'd recommend having her set to the highest level, 'Lead the Way'. When you first start out with her, she'll want to ask you a few questions, like how many days a week you want to train.
After a couple of hours worth of time with Vi, she had got to know me and my habits, and told me she would be speaking to me less from that point on. However she continues to pitch in with the odd bit of general advice here and there (don't eat too close to a run, keep a good posture etc) and speaks up if she notices my pace is varying too much or my performance is dropping in other ways. For example, on one run she told me my step frequency had dropped and suggested I ran to a metronome for a short while - which was handy, and did in fact do the trick.
Those are the moments where Vi feels like the perfect AI companion for a workout, but when it comes to speaking back to her, she becomes unstuck. We're getting used to using wake-up phrases with voice-controlled tech, but Vi requires a tap on the right earbud any time you want to speak to her unprompted. When I asked Yoffe about this, he said he felt wind and other noises can too easily obfuscate words, and that he wouldn't want to include voice activation until detection was 100% spot on.
I can understand that, but Vi's bigger problem is that she often fails to hear me even when she's intently listening to my voice. Sometimes she'll ask me a question, such as whether I'm feeling ok during a workout, and too often I find myself yelling at her with increasing frustration until she understands me, even if it's a simple "Yes". There are some other commands you can use, like "How am I doing?" or "Heart rate" for a flash update, but the accuracy hit rate in testing has not been good enough, and it's a real shame.
For now, Vi and I are like an old married couple: she tells me things, I shout things back, sometimes repeatedly, until she finally hears me. LifeBEAM says it's going to keep improving the AI, and I'll continue to use Vi in the hope she becomes a bit more dynamic and better at hearing me over time. Vi's certainly more personable than Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri, but she needs work if she wants to be smarter too.
LifeBEAM Vi: App, music and battery life
The Vi app is quite a basic affair, and makes it super easy to kick off a workout. Before a run you can set how far, or how long, you want to run (or, as I said, just start a 'Free run') and away you go. Afterwards, you'll get the lowdown on your distance, duration, pace, heart rate, speed and step rate, but third-party app integration is limited to Apple Health, Google Fit, and the ability to send ride data in a .tcx file to Strava. I'd certainly like to see it play friendly with a bunch of other apps in the near future.
When you're not using it for a run, Vi can be used simply as a pair of Bluetooth headphones. LifeBEAM has teamed up with Harmin Kardon on the sound, which is of good quality, though I'd argue it's lacking a bit in the bass department. During a workout you've got the option of Spotify and Apple Music integration, letting you choose from your saved playlists from within the Vi app. LifeBEAM says it's working to advance the music features, eventually hoping to include one that will play songs with a beat to match your heart rate. For now, the music playlist feature is fine, but I've found that sometimes playback will just stop (even though the tracks are saved offline) and won't start again until I open the app. It seems like this is just a weird bug, hopefully something LifeBEAM can fix soon.
Max battery life on Vi is around eight hours, so you should be able to get about a week of life out of them, which is what I've found. Unless of course you're using them for general music listening too, in which case you'll find yourself powering them up more frequently.
- Good heart rate tracking
- AI trainer can be great
- Voice detection often misses
- Occasional music playback bugs