Vitali's smart bra wants to fight stress

We speak to the startup on a mission to help you keep calm
Vitali's stress-fighting smart bra

If Fitbit and Apple are taking a more mindful approach to wearables, then that's pretty much a guarantee that it's going to be a big deal.

One startup is fully embracing the concept of using technology to combat the rigours of a stressful day. Vitali has launched its first Kickstarter campaign for a smart sports bra that has sensors embedded into the fabric to track breathing, posture and heart rate variability. HRV is a clinically proven indicator of stress, but along with monitoring breathing and posture during the day, Vitali hopes it can also identify what triggers those stressful moments so you can make changes to your day and overall, just feel calmer and more relaxed.

Read this: The science behind Apple and Fitbit's mindfulness push

Vitali's founder Cindy Gu, based out of Vancouver, Canada, told us that the smart garment was shaped by her own personal battle with stress and experiences with the current crop of connected clothing options available to women right now.

"During university I was going through a period of time when I was constantly stressed and I suffered from depression," she said. "I tried therapy but it didn't help me that much. But what did help me was my yoga practice. I always knew that posture alignment and systematic breathing are those key points that are really beneficial for our health and wellness.

"Through recovering from depression I realised this is something I need to integrate into my life instead of just inside my yoga studio. At the same time I was struggling to be really aware about my body and mind. I realised I needed a tool to help me. So I made it a mission in my life to live well with stress instead of running away from it."

Gu, who has a background in engineering, actually started her work by sewing sensors onto existing bras to monitor breathing and biofeedback when she started to get stressed out. After visiting a hackathon event and pitching the project, she found other people who wanted to work on the project and ended up winning the hackathon. That's when she realised that she was onto something bigger: "Over the last 18 months I've realised how many women, in particular, are constantly stressed. Tech is fighting for our attention but we don't have the space in our mind to connect to our body and general wellbeing."

Building a smart sports bra

Vitali's smart bra wants to fight stress

So Gu decided that the tool to help these women would take form of a smart bra after initially thinking about making an accessory that could pack in the necessary motion and ECG sensors needed to deliver the insightful data. "I didn't want anything on my wrist," she said. "I don't care how pink the Fitbit is, I'm not going to wear it. It doesn't fit my style or wardrobe. Looking in my wardrobe, I already have a lot of sport bras. I live my life in them not only for activities but even if I go to the office I throw a shirt over one. They are super comfortable."

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The Vitali system works in a very similar way to current fitness-focused smart garments from the likes of OMSignal, Hexoskin and Athos. The sensors required to measure breathing rate, posture and heart rate are embedded into the fabric. A clip-on module called a GEM houses the other components including the battery that delivers two days of power, 64MB of memory and the motion sensors. It has been positioned in a place that's not intrusive on a woman's body and so that it doesn't matter if you're sitting, leaning on a chair or working out. There are also some key design differences that have been introduced based on Gu's experience with other smart apparel including OMSignal's Ombra to ensure that fit and comfort were big priorities.

"One problem I had with the other products is that they use strap pads but they are really uncomfortable against your skin," she explained. "As you sweat they can be irritating and you get so many rashes. It's really meant for everyday wear so it needs to be comfortable and breathable. "We have been getting really good feedback on the fitting. I was really nervous to get people to try it. It was a good choice to use fabric sensors because it could retain the flexibility inside of the bra.

"The OmSignal bra is a really great product but it's really a running bra. My personal problem is that the module is twice as big as ours and it's right on the side of my rib, I was brushing my arm constantly against it. Women can be very picky on that smallest things as far as clothing is concerned. It has to look good."

The stress factor

Vitali's smart bra wants to fight stress

As we've already mentioned, the idea of stress and monitoring it is a relatively new phenomenon for wearable tech. We've seen heart rate variability crop up in GPS sports watches and fitness trackers to give an insight into knowing when you're putting too much strain on your body. It can also be an indicator of whether you're physically and mentally ready to work out again.

Read this: Can a wearable actually make you calmer?

Vitali is not trying to be a tool for fitness folk though. "Stress is a bigger problem than fitness," Gu told us. "For our product it's about understanding the triggers. Breathing, posture and HRV are all indicators of stress but HRV is the one that has the clinical back up and is about metrics. We are mapping posture and breathing to HRV to understand what breathing and posture is bad. I think that's really useful. It's really the mind, body and physiological connection that's important here."

Once you've got your smart bra delivered and it fits (there is an exchange policy if it doesn't), you'll need to pair it with the companion iOS or Android app and calibrate with Vitali asking users to assume a good posture to ensure the data is accurate.

Vitali's smart bra wants to fight stress

Inside the app (above) you'll see your wellness score, which pulls together everything the bra measures. There's also a goal section to keep you motivated and a breathing ring to show breathing patterns and breaths per minute collecting the daily average. "I have noticed that everyday at work my HRV goes down really low around 2pm", she said. "But the signs are like around 12 pm and that's because I have a really late lunch. Now I just change my day and take an earlier lunch."

In terms of testing, the startup has kept everything in house, wearing it and making sense of the data particularly with the HRV measuring. Gu says that it's pretty easy to test posture although she does admit that there's still some fine-tuning that needs to be done on that front.

Smart clothing's exciting future

Vitali's smart bra wants to fight stress

If successful with its campaign, Vitali will join the list of smart clothing startups trying to break into the mainstream, a task that's proved no easy feat with a lot riding on Google and Levi's smart commuter jacket launch later this year to kick things into gear.

Essential reading: A fitness tech guide for women

Gu has no doubts that smart clothing has a bright future and appreciates the challenges that might be holding it back. "We are at the intersection of two industries, the tech and the fashion," she told us. "From an engineering perspective meshing the soft materials with the electronics is the hardest problem.

"I really do think it's the next wave of wearables. Whenever I mention wearables people think about Fitbit. Clothing is the most natural thing to wear. For me, I don't wear anything on my wrist nor would I clip something on my clothes because I'm going to lose it. The current smart clothing on the market are not really wearable yet or comfortable."

Gu also acknowledges that pricing is a problem as well, especially for its own garment that is meant to be for everyday women. The sport smarts bra, which will ship in February 2018, is being offered to backers for $129, which is significantly cheaper than the $249 retail price but still pricey for one piece of clothing. She's conscious about cost but cites the money required to make a product as a startup.

Speaking of money, there is of course the Kickstarter campaign. Vitali is trying to raise $50,000 and hopefully much more, but it's not sure at this stage how those funds will be used to bring the device to life. One of the stretch goals will be to add activity tracking letting you ditch the Fitbit to count steps, but Gu doesn't want that potential addition to lose sight of why she and her team are building this sensor-packed sports bra. "For me honestly, I'm more interested in my stress levels than the one hour of activity in that day. Wellness is really our big focus on here."



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