Stress tracking wearables are very much in vogue – but Cove and Apollo Neuro claim to actually reduce stressful feelings.
Both use a technique called touch therapy, which uses small vibrations on the skin, to tap into sensory nerves in our skin. In turn, this communicates to the part of our nervous system, activated by stress, to signal a feeling of calm or focus. Think of it as a nice, warm, digitally administered hug.
We tested these touch therapy wearables a chance to see if they could keep us calm, focused and come to the aid of a terrible sleeper. Here's how we got on.
Different design approaches
The Cove and Apollo Neuro offer that touch therapy in different form factors. With the Apollo Neuro (pictured above), you get something that resembles a ridiculously chunky smartwatch.
There's a plastic module that hosts the key components with two physical buttons on the side and a single LED indicator light to let you know when it's paired or running low on battery.
It can be worn either on the wrist or the ankle via a soft neoprene material strap that comes in two sizes and uses velcro to keep it in place.
That plastic module packs in haptic technology to deliver vibrations to the skin. That part was built by German startup Lofelt, who first showcased its haptic hardware inside of a wearable basswoofer that it launched in 2017.
It connects to your phone via Bluetooth and the companion phone app (Android and iOS) where you can select from a range of different modes that range in duration and are designed to be used in specific scenarios where you might need a relaxation or focus boost.
The Apollo Neuro hardware costs $349 while the companion app is currently free to use.
The Cove (above) is a headband-style device that sits behind the ears, and delivers its touch therapy to the skin at the back of the head via large vibrating sections on the interior of the band.
Unlike the Apollo Neuro, the Cove headband also includes a light-based, PPG heart rate sensor and accelerometer motion sensor to capture movement and heart rate during sessions. That information all helps to generate what Cove refers to as its Relaxation Score.
You'll have to sign up to a Cove membership to get the hardware and access to features in the companion smartphone app. You can pay $99 up front and then pay $19 a month for 18 months or pay $379 for a 12-month membership. Bottom line, these touch therapy wearables do no not come cheap.
Are these touch therapy wearables backed by research?
In the case of Cove, it states that its device has been validated by rigorous research through several independent studies conducted at Brown University.
That validation is based on testing with 3,500 participants, analysing stress, anxiety and sleep quality with single sessions and use of the Cove over a 30-day period.
Among the findings in those studies, it claims 90% of participants slept better and stressed less while there was a 39% increase in focus and improvement in visual memory after the device was used for 30 days.
Apollo similarly says its device has been validated by individual and university-led trials. It states that it has completed six clinical trials while nine trials are ongoing at the time of writing. Its sample sizes in those studies already completed were small however, ranging from 12-582 participants.
In the largest completed study focused on improved quality of sleep, it found that users that wore the Neuro consistently for 3+ hours a day, 5+ days a week, during the day and night for 3 months, saw a 19% average increase in deep sleep and 14% average increase in REM sleep.
A smaller study in partnership with the University of Pittsburgh to evaluate the increase in HRV and cognitive performance saw up to 25% increase in focus and concentration and 10% average increase in HRV in the small 38 sample size.
Living with Cove and Apollo Neuro
We started out with Cove first, which due to the design isn't something comfortable to throw on at any time of the day. It's one to use if you're sitting at your desk or at home on the sofa or in your bed.
It's reasonably light and the back band can be adjusted to offer an accommodating fit, to make sure the pads that deliver those vibrations are in the optimum position.
Those with big hair need to make sure it's cleared out of the way to make sure the pads are sitting closely against the skin.
Getting a good fit didn't generally take too long, but something we did notice is that it doesn't seem to be all that well suited to glasses wearers and it meant whipping off the specs to put them good to use.
In the companion phone app (Android and iOS) it suggests you use Cove twice a day for just 20 minutes, keep the intensity of the vibrations as low as you can possibly feel them, and use it regularly for at least two weeks to really feel the benefits. Those benefits include less stress, better sleep, more focus and even more dreams.
Using it within an hour before sleep is also suggested for those who want to see some welcome sleep improvements. Wearing it in the morning is also a good time to get you in the right frame of mind for your day as well.
When a session is completed, you'll get a Relaxation Score based on heart rate and head movement and you want to see those scores trending upwards.
You'll additionally see a breakdown of heart rate average and average movement. Cove also performs stress check-ins, where you rate how well you handled a stressful moment in your day.
With the Apollo Neuro, it's something you can pretty much throw on at any time, but it's far from a sleek device. It's a bit chunky-looking too, but thankfully has a lightweight build so it never felt heavy to wear. We strapped it to our wrists mainly and establishing a connection with the app is pretty seamless, though does usually take a few seconds to connect the two together. Then you pick your mode and let it go to vibrating work.
There's seven modes in total, and each mode explains what type of benefits you should experience and the ideal times to use it.
The Energy and Wake Up mode is designed to give you a boost of energy when you're feeling tired and sluggish and suggests using it in boring meetings or when you're seeking an espresso.
Each mode allows you to adjust the mode intensity, which controls the strength of the vibrations fired towards your skin.
Unlike Cove, there isn't a period of use suggested to start seeing the benefits, but does state that it does work best when used regularly.
To encourage that you can set up schedules that will remind you to use certain modes at different times of the day.
It's as simple as picking the Relax and Unwind mode to be used in the evening after you've finished work for instance.
When you've completed a mode, it'll be tracked in the app, which also records streaks and total minutes while there's virtual badges up for grabs when you've clock up a certain amount of minutes or streaks. Apollo Neuro also includes data sharing with smart ring maker Oura, which is designed to help Apollo understand how using the device impacts on sleep and recovery from illness.
Stress busters or is it all a placebo?
We certainly approached these two devices with a healthy amount of skepticism. Unlike looking at whether a smartwatch is tracking your heart rate or GPS positioning accurately, it's much more difficult to quantify how well these touch therapy wearables actually work. All we could do was wear them as suggested. and then give you a sense how how they made us feel.
We started our testing time with Cove and found it most suitable to use it before going to sleep.
Once it's on and in place, you can jump into the app, connect the two devices and start that 20-minute session, which thankfully didn't feel like a chore to do. The idea is here is that those vibrations should be subtle and just enough for you to sense it, almost like a tickle on the skin and that's just how it felt.
We wouldn't say that it took the recommended two weeks to start to feel like that the Cove was putting us in a much calmer state before bed and in general when we used it. Was it ultimately helping us to fall asleep or more relaxed? It was hard to say. It's certainly not the kind of device you'd want to fall asleep with on that's for sure, which didn't happen thankfully.
Cove places a big emphasis on its relaxation scores, which relies on average heart rate data, which we found held up on the accuracy front compared to similar tracking captured on a Garmin watch and an Oura Ring during those testing sessions.
Those scores give you an immediate sense of just how relaxed you were and means you can easily start to see trends yourself if those scores change when you use Cove at similar times of the day.
Cove companion smartphone app
Ultimately though, there were a couple of things that found us quickly turning to the Apollo Neuro for our touch therapy time. The first was battery life. Cove says you'll get four, 20-minute sessions off a single charge and that's exactly what we got.
The habit of charging with everything else we have to charge in our lives meant it often spent more time on the bedside table than it did on our head.
With the Apollo Neuro, it's a little easier to see how you can make regular use of it. If you're already wearing a watch, you can put it on your other wrist when you need it and whip it off after in a quick fashion. Battery life is any where from 6-8 hours, so we were charging it a lot less than the Cove as well.
We found the modes on offer while very specific, felt a lot more useful to use.
Instead of grabbing a coffee in the morning to get ready for work, we used the Energy and Wake Up mode instead, where the intensity and length of vibrations vary to invoke the right type of get up and go reaction from your brain and body.
We used the Clear and Focused modes ahead of workouts, and when we needed to knuckle down to work. We also used Sleep and Renew mode before and during sleep.
Apollo Neuro companion smartphone app screenshots
The effects of using that Neuro felt most noticeable in those focused modes where vibrations feel quicker and more frequent and it did feel like it was creating a desired effect. It was sleep though where this wearable seemed to be doing its most effective work for us.
Pretty much every time we've used this wearable to try to get to sleep quicker we fell asleep with the mode still running. Even when struggling with illness, this wearable seemed to offer a helping hand. Was it down to those soothing vibrations or was it something else? All we can say is that it felt to us like it was having a positive impact.
As we said, it's hard to quantify just how effective these touch therapy wearables are and the studies conducted by both companies so far are hardly conclusive proof, despite uncovering some interesting findings.
Did they work?
Based on our experiences, mainly with the Apollo Neuro, it felt like there's something positive here. As both wearable makers say, you need to use them regularly to reap the benefits of the approaches to get you calmer, focused and more relaxed. We definitely did find that in the Neuro, which we've continued to wear before bed and when working.
Let's be clear though, there are other things you can do that can get you more relaxed before bed or get you feeling calmer for a lot less money. This is a a more convenient one, but those upfront costs and the added subscription you need to pay with Cove make these wearable touch therapy devices really expensive investments.
We felt like we did have some positive experiences with the Apollo Neuro in some scenarios, but we'd like to see that design get smaller and that price to come down further to make it a more appealing wearable to wear on a regular basis.
There does feel like there's something in the value of touch therapy in terms of its impact on mood and tapping into that part of that brain that can influence those feelings. It might make much more sense to take this vibrating method and pack it into smartwatches and fitness trackers that already do something similar with features like guided breathing exercises so it's easier and cheaper to reap those touch benefits.