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Squeezing into OMsignal's smart shirt of the future

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Thanksgiving is a time to remember things to be grateful for, stuff yourself with turkey and watch MST3k re-runs. But what happens the following day, when you wake up with a meat hangover that could kill a horse? That's the moment you'll stumble online, looking for new ways to lose weight and find OMsignal's biometric smart shirt. The fashionable piece is a sports-style compression garment that monitors your breathing, heart rate and step count, so I know that as I write this, I'm taking 18 breaths a minute and my heart is beating 76 times every 60 seconds. Neat, huh?

Pull the hardware out of the rough cardboard (you know the sort that screams "premium") and you'll be greeted with a shirt, the attached sensor -- nicknamed the "little black box" -- and a micro-USB cable for charging. The base model being tested here is a black, sleeveless vest with neon green accents, but depending on which model you buy, you can also get a sleeved version that comes with blue, yellow or gray trims, or a white version. In terms of materials, the shirt is 55 percent polyester, 23 percent nylon, 20 percent elastane and 2 percent other, and has that same smooth, difficult-to-grip texture as a neoprene wetsuit.

In essence, the "technology" on show here is really all contained in the band that runs beneath your nipples pectoral muscles. There are two sensors (at slightly different heights) at the front and one on the back that sits close to your left kidney. If you're familiar with the heart rate monitoring chest strap that you get with a fancy GPS running watch, then just imagine that, but baked into a shirt. Merging this tech with clothing isn't especially new, since there are plenty of sports bras that have the fasteners and sensors compatible with a Bluetooth sensor. OMsignal's USP here, of course, is that the Bluetooth sensor it uses is significantly more complicated and promises to do more.

The small Bluetooth module, then, is connected to the shirt with five (five!) snap fasteners, and is about the same size as a stack of 10 credit cards. It's textured and angled a little so that it somewhat bends around the contours of your body as it sits along your left side. Flip it over and there's a micro-USB port nestled among the snap fasteners and a unique PIN code on the right that you'll need to pair your device to the compatible iOS app.

Once you've paired the app to the little black box, you'll be asked to do a fitness test that takes around five minutes. You'll need to stand still for the first and last portions, and in the middle, a cheery Canadian narrator will order you to squat, reverse lunge and air bike your way to a heart rate of 140BPM. In the final minute, the app tracks your recovery as you clutch at your chest and pant in agony, giving you a letter score to assess your fitness. You will be unsurprised to learn that I managed to score a paltry D.

That score didn't come the first time out, I should add, because the cold climate that dries your skin out causes the conductive threads in the shirt to stop working. In the same way you're asked to run the rubber strip of a traditional chest strap under a tap before you put it on, you need to moisten the OMsignal's sensor pads with water or rub a hydrating water-based gel on your skin to improve the conductivity.

The app mostly concerns itself with three large circles that represent your heart rate (red), breath (blue) and steps/calories (yellow). Each one is pretty large and, perhaps inexplicably, the yellow circle is held off-screen for you to swipe on and off as you see fit. I'm not entirely sure why, since there's plenty of screen real estate on your iOS device to see all three, but there has to be some logic to it. Below that is the button for the aforementioned biometric test, which you can use to test and re-test yourself as your fitness improves. Then you've got a trio of options, letting you activate the fitness-tracking module for when you go out for runs and the results page that tells you how well you've done.

The fitness option is great for real-time tracking if you're on a treadmill or other such system that lets you keep an eye on your phone. You can even configure your goals so that you have to reach a set period of time for a set heart rate zone, ranging from fitness, through aerobic and anaerobic, all the way to VO2 Max -- the last one being exercise speak for "maximum effort."

It's a neat package, and something that I think I'll spend more time playing with in the future, but if there's one complaint, it's that there's no social element to the app. In the same way that you can create competitive leagues with your friends on Nike+ Running, it'd be nice to challenge other users. It's early days, so hopefully that can come later, since there's lots of potential for bragging amongst your support circle.

In terms of battery life, I've only worn the OMsignal for one day so far, but it looks as if you'll get around 12 hours on a single charge (and I'll update this when I've had more time with the product). Of course, that's just for the activity- and fitness-tracking features; you can wear it as a piece of clothing for as long as your washing routine/dignity allows.

Before I go, I do want to give a word of caution out to my people, those who are carrying a little more heft than they'd like. Exercise clothes, you see, have started to skew heavily toward the fashionable, especially since Stella McCartney started designing them. More often than not, I'll see people wearing yoga pants and compression shirts to get coffee or buy groceries, and look good as they do it. The problem, as you may have surmised, is that exercise clothes often look great on those who've already made it, people who are already "cut," but their figure-hugging nature may be intimidating if you're just starting out on the journey. That's one of the reasons that this action shot is tucked down here at the bottom, rather than greeting you as you began the article.

Add in the multiplier effect of compression garments -- ultra-tight clothing designed to aid recovery -- and you realize that everyone can see your love handles and moobs. That's certainly the case for the sleeveless vest that OMsignal has been supplying to journalists. Now, we should all be cheering on those who are seeking to better themselves, but I can't help imagine that those going for a run in one of these may encourage cries of derision from bystanders. That's why I'd suggest buying the sleeved shirts and wearing a baggy T-shirt or sweater on top, at least when you start out.

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