Lifebeam Vi review: The AI that wants to replace your personal trainer
I started this year with stupid-looking eyewear on my face – and I don’t mean as a hangover from New Year’s festivities. You may remember my review of the Oakley Radar Pace but, if you don’t, here’s a summary: having a personal trainer in your ear is brilliant, but it’s too bad you have to look like a prune for the privilege.
Ten months later and I’m running with the Vi headphones. These AI earphones offer everything the Oakley Radar Pace do with a little more on top, don’t make you look silly and come in at half the price. What’s not to love?
A couple of things, as it turns out but they’re not significant enough to rule the Vi completely out of contention. I started off the year thinking an audio fitness tracker was the future – after a cumulative 78.98km running with the Vi, I’m delighted to report that it’s now the present.
Vi review: Design[gallery:1]
As well as coming in at half the price of the Oakley Radar Pace, the Vi is already in the lead because it’s beautifully minimalist. While Oakley’s business model relies on standing out like an extrovert peacock, the Vi is subtle and built into a small comfy package.
The Vi connect to your phone via Bluetooth but the earbuds are hard-wired to a plastic collar that fits comfortably around the neck. From there, you can control the volume and switch it on and off and it also has a microphone built-in so you can talk to your trainer for an update on where you are and so forth. Pop the right-hand cap off, and you’ll find a micro USB port for charging the headphones; the battery itself lasts for four to six hours.
Despite its 39g weight, the Vi are packed with all kinds of sensors. To be precise, this includes a six-axis accelerometer, a gyroscope, a barometer and a heart rate sensor nestled in the left earbud. There’s no room for GPS, sadly, that’s offloaded to your phone, but given the AI at the heart of Vi is cloud-based, you’d need your phone to run with in any case.
Although Vi started life as a Kickstarter campaign, you can tell that the company has had a lot of investment since then. The packaging is straight out of the Apple playbook and, as well as a carry case and charging cable, a number of different-sized earbuds and sport grips are included. You can combine these any way you like to ensure a comfortable fit and that the heart rate sensor is always able to track the blood flow of your ear.
Vi review: Performance[gallery:3]
To be clear, there’s nothing on that list that’s out of the ordinary, but to dismiss Vi based on that complaint feels a bit like missing the point. The Vi’s party trick is two-fold: first, the AI will give you vocal updates on how you’re doing without needing to squint at numbers on your screen or fiddle with buttons. Second, and more importantly, it interprets the numbers in real-time. Crudely put, your watch might tell you that you’re traveling at 4mins 30secs per kilometre, but Vi contextualises this, warning you if the pace is unsustainable, or encouraging you if it knows you can do better.
And with all the audio gubbins provided by Harman/Kardon they even sound good. Not necessarily good enough to replace your regular headphones but certainly good enough for running and no matter the impact of your legs on tarmac, the sound stays solid throughout. The heart rate sensor is a little tricky to line up correctly and has a tendency to disconnect druing runs – especially if you don’t pick the right sport grip to begin with but it’s no less fussy than the JBL Under Armour earphones I reviewed earlier this year.
It takes around two hours of use for Vi to learn who you are and how you run but, once you’ve put in the hours, it will routinely kick in with advice about how you can improve, responding in real time to your performance. With Vi’s help I have reduced my stride length considerably, going from an average of sub-140 steps per minute to 160, something which has definitely left me able to go longer distances; it’s easier on the knees as well.
The voice technology also deserves a shout out. It’s a very polished experience all round, with a tone that’s far less mechanical than Siri, Alexa or Google. In fact, the software even makes a joke about this when you first boot it up, switching from a mechanical, over-the-top robot voice to its natural tone to demonstrate the difference. It greets you by name when you fire it up, congratulates you on personal achievements and even distracts you on your run with little tidbits of conversation it picks up along the way.[gallery:4]
Case in point: on a run this weekend, it gave me some riddles to ponder as I rounded the 2.5km mark. The feedback feels a little limited at the moment, but its being built on all the time with over-the-air updates.
All of these can be tailored, of course. You can make Vi super chatty or set it to only speak when spoken to but be warned that the microphone is patchy. Like other devices of its ilk, you have to project quite loudly and clearly for it to understand you, and that can leave you looking a bit stupid if you’re doing it mid-race.
It’s not a dealbreaker, especially as a recent update has meant that you can now reply to yes/no questions with a press of the volume keys. In theory you’re supposed to be able to ask Vi questions at any time by tapping the right earbud, but I found this hugely patchy. In these instances, you’re left to rely on the AI’s own (usually good) judgement.
A quick work about phone compatibility here, and the risks of piggbacking off another product. With my review Pixel 2, the microphone just didn’t work – so much so that I sent back my first Vi assuming it was a dud model. When I switched to my own Samsung Galaxy S7, the microphone worked, but GPS dropped so much that its attempts at measuring pace and distance were virtually worthless. Neither of these are the fault of the Vi, but it does neatly demonstrate why it’s sometimes better to have all your running eggs in one basket.
Vi review: The app
The first thing to say about the app is that Lifebeam seems to be serious about building on it. In a couple of months with Vi as my personal trainer, the software has received a number of useful updates – most recently adding Google Assistant to the mix.
And it’s not in a bad space right now, although it’s definitely more functional than fully featured for the moment. Boot it up, pick your goal (lose weight, go further, go faster, reduce stress, maintain fitness, improve fitness) pick what type of run you want (free, timed, distance or treadmill), and head off. Walking and cycling are also included, though they are labelled as being in beta.
Once you’re done, a fairly standard array of metrics is displayed for you (and Vi) to mull over, including pace, distance, time, step rate, heart rate and elevation. There’s also a handy map showing so you can retrace your steps should you feel so inclined.
In terms of integration with other fitness platforms, things are limited for now. It’s just Strava and Spotify, with the latter letting you add playlists to stop and start with your runs. Omri Yoffe, the company’s CEO tells me that the most requested app for integration is Zombies, Run which shows that building on this is something that’s being discussed throughout the company.
Vi review: Verdict[gallery:6]
I like Vi a lot, but I appreciate in some ways it’s a tough sell. First, £200 puts it in direct competition with the likes of the Polar M430, Gear Fit2 Pro and the TomTom Spark 3 – all of which don’t require a phone, but track everything Vi does and a little more with built-in GPS. The fact that Vi’s vocal commands are a bit flaky means in some ways it’s a weaker solution because you can’t see how you’re doing at any time: the main selling point of a fitness watch.
But that kind of misses the point. Vi is great because it’s not aimed at marathon runners looking to shave seconds off their best times. It’s aimed at people who don’t really understand the numbers put out by fitness devices but who want someone to interpret them and offer encouragement. At this the Vi does a pretty good job, which for £200 isn’t bad going – and, don’t forget, you’re also getting a good set of earphones for your money as well.
Right now, I’m still using the Vi alongside a running watch; that way I have the best of both worlds. But I’m optimistic the day will come when Vi, or something like it, will be fully featured enough to pass the responsibility to my ears full time.