Fighting the Bionic Man: Why Spire tried to make its new Health Tag invisible

Spire wants to make all your clothes smart
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The Health Tag is the wearable Spire has always wanted to build, CEO Jonathan Palley told us when we visited the company in its San Francisco headquarters.

Palley is proud of the original device, casually mentioning that over a thousand doctors, psychologists and more have recommended using the original Spire to make you calmer. However, he also acknowledges that it was part of the "first generation" of wearable devices, and all the less positive user experiences that brings.

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"It's something else to wear," he says. "People buy these devices, and they're still buying a lot of them, because they want health outcomes. They aren't buying it because of the device, they're buying it because of what they hope the device does for them. The problem with that user experience, that form factor, is that I've got to remember to charge it, I've got to remember to put it on, it might not fit with my style. It's just a hassle, another thing in my life, when my goal is often to simplify my life and help me be healthier."

That was our main complaint about the original Spire, which felt like it was giving us another thing to check on rather than actually helping us become calm. To solve this, Palley says Spire has been wondering how to create products that get at outcomes for users. First, that means making the device invisible.

Fighting the Bionic Man: Why Spire tried to make its new Health Tag invisible

Spire looked at skin-based wearables and smart clothes, but saw problems with both. Skin-based wearables like temporary tattoos were a non-starter because Spire felt that people didn't want to take showers "like the Bionic Man". Smart clothing was another non-starter because people have different clothing styles, with different fabric preferences and environments to adapt to. However, they did like clothing, so they wondered if they could make regular clothing smart.

When you first hold the Health Tag, it's hard not to be surprised by how small and light it is. It's just a bit larger than a stamp and about as thick as an iPhone. It's also wrapped in Ultrasuede, a high quality fabric you'll find on furniture, shoes and on the interior of fancy cars.

This helps make the Health Tag soft and comfortable. While we didn't get to wear it for an extended time and truly put it through its paces, we can say it's not going to feel odd when you first put it on. Palley says the material is also durable, and can hold up in the wash.

Creating the Health Tag took years of development, with Palley saying the biggest challenge was finding components that were power efficient enough and waterproof enough to survive the wear and tear they planned for the device.

"This product was not just a matter of like putting a bunch of chips in a unique form factor, we literally invented entirely new sensors that are in there. So inside of that there are novel sensors the world has never seen before," Palley says.

Fading to the background

Fighting the Bionic Man: Why Spire tried to make its new Health Tag invisible

While good hardware that fades into the background is one part of Spire's goal with Health Tag, the other part is software that does the same thing, which is why Spire has created an all-new app for its new device.

Palley says Spire doesn't want you to constantly think about being healthy while wearing the Tag. It wants the device and the software to completely disappear unless it actually has something interesting and useful to say about your health, and that's when the app will send you notifications.

While the app is like other fitness apps and will throw a whole bunch of charts and metrics at you, Palley says that's not the main thrust of the app. Instead, it's sorted into something Spire calls Programs. They're labelled with goals, which include things like getting fit, sleeping better, finding calm and more. It's basically a way of you telling Spire what you care about, letting the Health Tag and its companion app surface information that only relates to that.

All of this is powered by what Spire is calling the Insight engine, which uses all the metrics gleamed from the Health Tag, puts them together, figures out what it means and then lets you know what you can do to improve your health. Palley uses an example from his last couple of nights to illustrate.

Fighting the Bionic Man: Why Spire tried to make its new Health Tag invisible

"Seeing that someone hasn't slept well the last two nights, seeing the correlation between exercise and sleep and saying hey, you're not sleeping well, get 30 minutes more exercise, you'll see your sleep get better, and here's a kind of exercise that can help," he says.

Other potential connections include showing how your stress level increases and decreases based on how you sleep. However, fully taking advantage of all of Health Tag's features requires more than one of these. Spire also realizes that not everyone will want these for every possible situation.

Health Tag comes in three sets, which will start shipping in early 2018. There's a $99 three-pack built for people who just want to use it when they're working out, a $199 eight-pack that's built for the work day and a $299 15-pack if you want to put it in as many outfits as possible. Spire recommends putting the Health Tags on the side of your bra if you're a women or in the front of your underwear if you're a man. That way, it can get the best possible heart rate from your core, which Palley says has less light pollution than other areas of the body and can provide better readings. He also says the company will publish validation papers from third parties in January 2018 to back up its health-sensing claims.

So what happens if a year and a half goes by, your Health Tags are dead and you want more? Do you have to repurchase them? Nope. Palley says the company is working on a program that'll let you send back your Tags to purchase new ones for a lower cost. This is possible because Health Tags are built for reusability, letting Spire easily open them up and re-use components that are still good to go, and easily recycle and remake those that are expired.

If there's one word to describe Health Tag it's adaptive. Spire is clear that it want its device to meld and adapt to your life, not the other way around, which was one of the problems with the original device. It's also hoping that making sure the device is in the background and always on your underwear can help people use wearables more.

Palley explains that people who are motivated to track their fitness are more likely to charge their devices every night then wake up and remember to put them on their wrists. Those without that much motivation might just leave them in their drawer. This, Palley argues, is not a problem for Health Tag.

"You know that problem, I'm sure, that most of these wearables end up in the drawer. Well, [the Health Tag] does [go in the drawer], but it's intentional."

How we test

Husain Sumra


Husain joined Wareable in 2017 as a member of our San Fransisco based team. Husain is a movies expert, and runs his own blog, and contributes to MacRumors.

He has spent hours in the world of virtual reality, getting eyes on Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Samsung Gear VR. 

At Wareable, Husain's role is to investigate, report and write features and news about the wearable industry – from smartwatches and fitness trackers to health devices, virtual reality, augmented reality and more.

He writes buyers guides, how-to content, hardware reviews and more.

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