Tracking the Engadget staff's vitals was a terrible mistake

We suffered at CES and collected the data to prove it.

In Terrible CES Mistakes: Biometric Shirts for All

We challenged eight Engadget staffers to wear a biometric health-tracking shirt for the first few days of CES. In a word, it went terribly. For many of us, it was a struggle to set up a shirt, computer and bluetooth-connected app amid the general stress and distraction of the show. Especially since everyone was also overloaded with work on the first full day of CES coverage.

Most of the group found the shirts to be uncomfortable after wearing them for the day. Some of that discomfort is by design: The shirts we picked, by biometric company Hexoskin, are designed to be worn for high-intensity workouts and the recovery period that goes along with them. That's a much shorter amount of time than the Engadget crew was shooting for. We had assumed going into the show that biometric shirts (which capture heart rate, respiration, sleeping patterns, etc.) would garner much more interesting data than a simple step counter. While that is theoretically true, the impracticalities of wearing a tight spandex workout shirt all day under our regular clothes would soon catch up with us.

All three of the ladies of Engadget (myself, Mallory Johns and Dana Wollman) couldn't get the sensors built into the shirt to detect our heartbeats and respiration without some effort. It's also true, though, that we could only give short spurts of attention to the shirts. The men were mostly able to get some measurements right out of the box, though that did not mean that their results were accurate.

We all wore the Hexoskin Classic. The company unveiled a new version of its hardware and app at this CES, so presumably, some of these little setup struggles will have been tweaked.

The worst moment came when I tried to get the app to detect my heart rate while riding in a cargo van filled with tech reporters on day one. I had to surreptitiously pull the health-tracking shirt away from my body and dab water on it. Oh, and there were two layers of clothes on top of it. I'd already sent an email to Hexoskin saying that while the computer module attached to the shirt and the app had successfully connected over Bluetooth, the shirt could not detect that I was, in fact, alive. The company responded right away that the sensors likely needed to be dampened, so there I was, in a van filled with men, trying to get water onto the sensors in the shirt without anyone realizing what I was doing.

It felt incredibly awkward, given that the shirt's two main sensors are located on a band just underneath the breasts. Another sensor is at the waist. I dampened, but nothing happened, which was disappointing, since I was about to hop on a mountain bike and ride around the desert.

Dan Cooper, who reviewed the shirt for Engadget, said he had to take his shirt off on day one after a few hours of tightness left him feeling nauseous. However, managing editor Terrence O'Brien said he's had to stuff himself into another brand of biometric tracking shirt with a size well below his actual body type [Ed note: If you wanted to tell me I was getting fat, Kerry, you could have done it privately]. That one was even tighter, and he said he preferred Hexoskin's thinner fabric.

Eventually I was able to get the shirt to recognize that I am, in fact, a breathing human by doing much more than the gentle "dampen" that Hexoskin suggests. I simply put the shirt under the bathroom faucet and let it run for a few seconds, targeting the copper-colored sensors in the bands.

And just because I'd challenged everyone to, I slept in the shirt for a CES-standard night of rest -- five hours and 30 minutes -- because YOLO. Sleeping in it was perfectly comfortable, and honestly, I'd do it again, which none of my colleagues believe. But skin-chaffing, which happened to some of us on day one, wasn't a problem when sleeping overnight. So if you can't get this newly-unveiled-at-CES bed to track your biometrics -- workout sleep shirts for everybody!

More importantly, we at Engadget laid down a challenge that it turns out we could not meet. The shirts were far more constricting than I'd assumed (duh, they have to detect heart rate), so let's call this a fail. But our other takeaway remains: The future of wearables is clearly integration into actual fabric, but it's going to take a few generations for it to reach mass-market quality.

Now for the goods. Here's how the Engadget writers did wearing the shirts.

Managing editor Terrence O'Brien said at the beginning of our experiment that he loves data, but his data did not reflect much mutual respect. While he mostly sat in the Engadget trailer at CES, assigning stories from a chair, his heart rate reached 91 max, which is still under the target heart rate for moderate activity, according to the American Heart Association (better would have been 95-162 bpm). But he, like many of the guys, never had to dampen his sensors to detect data, so it's possible it wasn't quite accurate without that conductive moisture. Also (and this must be said) every time the app was opened, it instructed the user to be sure to dampen the sensors. The men of Engadget were fairly certain they could skip this step, and their results likely reflect that.

Same goes for editor-in-chief Michael Gorman. His data reported a brief spurt of a heart rate of 202 during a long eight-hour workday, but he also did not use any water on his sensors.

Senior editor Chris Velazco had no problem at all setting up his shirt, and he's the gold star Engadgeter who got it to work best. A record of a 47-minute walk one day at CES shows a map of his route around the Las Vegas Convention Center. He logged more than a mile of walking with a max heart rate of 130. That's a healthy range for exercising and also, a pretty accurate look at what a typical walk to chat to someone at a booth at CES really means.

Managing editor Dana Wollman was not able to get her shirt to track her stats, and Dan Cooper had to remove his shirt after he started feeling sick. Others, like executive editor Chris Trout, recorded a brief 30-minute work session with a max heart rate of 85 bpm. Social engagement editor Mallory Johns had a heart rate spike of 205 for an hour according to her data, which doesn't seem credible.

As for me? I learned that my heart rate dropped down to 73 while asleep. That number is in the "above average" range for someone my age, but I suspect I'm normally in the 60s when not tossing and turning on a work trip.

Non-athletes aside, Hexoskin says it's doing well in the serious metric-tracking market. The company has deals with NASA and other governmental agencies. Athletes and astronauts can clearly all benefit from the information a shirt like this can give them.

A single biometric shirt and "kit" (the small plastic brains of the shirt and its charger) from the company cost $400. But if you're serious about fitness, it's probably something you should look into. Whatever you do, try not to wear it for 14-hour stretches at the biggest tech conference in the US.