The Future of Fitness Can Fit in Your Ear

FOR FITNESS geeks who think Apple Watches and FitBits are old school, or prefer not to have their wrists weighed down as they run, a clever solution has emerged. Smart, sweat-resistant earphones—called “hearables,” or wearable in-ear gadgets—not only deliver music from your smartphone without the fuss of wires. They can also track your pulse, count steps, measure distance and pace, tally the flights of stairs you climb, figure out running routes, and estimate how many calories you’ve burned—data that help quantify your performance and inspire you to push yourself harder toward your next fitness goal.

“Wireless earbuds that provide feedback can be invaluable to keep someone training right and remaining consistent,” Toronto-based strength coach and writer Lee Boyce said. He’s heard positive things about the devices from clients, and sees them as supplementing traditional one-on-one sessions. “It’s an easier way to set and reach goals and a way to hold yourself accountable to them.”

Some hearables go a leap further. LifeBEAM’s Vi, an “AI personal trainer” launched in 2016 through Kickstarter, is threatening to disrupt an entire industry of fitness expertise for the price of a month’s membership at a high-end gym (see “Have You Heard?”). Vi’s sleek neckband and attached earbuds fit comfortably as you run, though turning your head sharply to look for oncoming traffic pulls at the buds a bit, which can quickly get annoying. Vi’s sound, crafted by premium audio brand Harman Kardon, is clear and rich, balancing bass and treble so every instrument and instruction comes through distinctly. These would be great headphones, even without the fitness capabilities.

Vi (pronounced “VEE”) is also the name given to the virtual woman who talks to you when the buds are turned on. Her soothing tone falls somewhere between the curt professionalism of Apple’s Siri and the intimacy of Samantha, the disembodied AI girlfriend in the movie “Her” (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Vi offers casual greetings like “Hey, what’s up?” and calls you by your first name. She also connects directly to your phone’s Spotify app or music library and will DJ her own hip-hop-heavy playlists for you.

After two hours of training, Vi gets to know you surprisingly well. She personalizes instructions, so if you’re a little older and a little slower, she’ll go easy. But if you sprint like Usain Bolt, she’ll keep up. Vi also advises you to avoid concrete for sake of your legs and asks you questions. You can request progress updates—which, if you’re in a crowded gym, makes you look only mildly ridiculous.

I tend to get listless after a half-hour of exercising. But Vi awakened whatever inner athlete has been lying dormant in me. As I ran, she encouraged me to increase my pace when I might have normally slowed down. She chimed in with reminders to breathe steadily, keep proper posture and tighten my core. I obliged, wanting to impress her.

Vi is a remarkable feat of simulated personality. She even cracks jokes, at one point rattling off a smoothie recipe before deadpanning, “Just kidding. Any fruits and vegetables are fine.” One evening, when she observed, “It’s so nice to make time for the things that matter to us,” I instinctively responded, “Yeah, Vi, you’re right.”

Still, Vi can only do so much. The device’s biggest drawback is its limited set of workout options. Beyond outdoor running, users can only choose treadmill, walking or cycling, all still in beta. But Vi is the beginning of a potential fitness revolution. She makes days at the gym less lonely, more entertaining and more challenging.

Other wireless headphones have similar aims but fall short in their AI. The closest rival is the Jabra Elite Sport, whose British-voiced bot dryly spouts statistics. She’s colder than Vi, but the Jabra includes fitness settings for cross-training, a more holistic form of exercise that utilizes strength and cardio—useful for anyone who gets tired of running in a loop.

The competing Bragi Dash Pro acts more or less as a standard fitness tracker, with one-size-fits-all feedback communicated via its accompanying app. There’s no unique AI personality included, just a generic robot voice that can read out heart rate and other stats when you request them. The Bragi can also be controlled using simple head tilts, or taps and swipes across the device, and features a four-gigabyte hard drive tucked in the right ear that lets you leave your phone at home during runs.

Mr. Boyce, for his part, isn’t worried for his job. “AI will never replace a traditional trainer,” he said. “It can’t give you a form check. A physically present trainer will be able to give you that one cue that makes or breaks an exercise and prevents a potential injury. He’ll be able to physically manipulate your body into learning movements the right way.”

And a warm-blooded trainer can chat with you about what happened on the most recent episode of “Atlanta,” something at which Vi is hopeless. At least for now. I wouldn’t underestimate her.

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Author; Paul Schrodt
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