I've loved the idea of Tware's AiraWear massage hoodie ever since I heard about it at CES earlier this year, and not just because I enjoy back rubs (who doesn't?!). It's just such a loopy idea that I'm unreasonably happy someone was willing to conceive, design, prototype and sell it. The wearable is not nearly as good as dedicated massage chairs or pads, but it does provide some muscle relief. And while the current prototype is fragile and I wouldn't be comfortable wearing it in public, the product (which just launched on Kickstarter) may succeed on sheer chutzpah alone.
The AiraWear seems like a spacesuit in terms of the complexity of plumbing and wiring. A pump inflates plastic cushions that push six hardened foam points at your lower, mid and upper back. The massage harness is sewn into what seems like a good-quality hoodie that comes in blue, black or gray. The whole thing weighs 2.6 pounds, which isn't bad for such a complex wearable, but I did notice the weight after wearing it around for a few hours. It takes about two hours to charge from a standard micro-USB slot on the motor and gives you up to six hours of massaging.
That said, it's easy enough to use. After charging it up, there's a simple-to-use app that runs will run on most Android or iOS devices when released. For the review unit, Tware supplied an Android phone with CyanogenMod installed. It communicates with the jacket via Bluetooth, and after I twisted the metal logo on front to power it on, it quickly paired up.
You can run one of four programs: "Relax" massages all three regions; "shoulder" and "lower back" target those specific zones; and "Sleep" gives you a lighter all-over treatment. (You can also have it nag you about your posture, but more on that later.) For now, there's no fine control over the force, and each program runs for exactly 15 minutes: no more, no less. However, the company has promised that you'll eventually be able to save custom massages or choose from a library.
The device gives an acupressure-style massage by pushing six modules into your back fairly hard. As such, it can't knead or target different back areas like massage pads with roller-style mechanisms. It does feel good in limited doses, but if you do it too much, it can get a bit painful because it keeps pushing the same spots over and over. In addition, the pressure isn't equal on all three regions of the back; it pushed me harder in the middle of my spine than on the upper or lower part. Still, after a good half-hour, I did feel a bit better than before.
Tware says the hoodie is ideal for de-stressing at the office or even on the go. A photo (above) shows someone using it on a subway train, but I'm not sure I'd feel comfortable doing that. While the company says it's "100 percent discreet," the mechanism really shows beneath the fabric, so someone might think you're carrying something underneath. I can also see it freaking out airport security personnel, whether you're wearing it or storing it in a carry-on bag. It looks even more bizarre when you're using it for a massage because the modules really protrude from the fabric.
The posture-control feature is actually pretty great, though the AiraWear is massive overkill for that job compared to, say, the Lumo Run clip-on posture monitor. When it detects your posture going wrong, the subtle push to the lower back is a strong reminder to get with the program.
The AiraWear is pretty complex, which may pose reliability problems. There are tubes, wires and motors baked in, and things can easily get tangled up. When I used it, the tubes that transport air from the motor to the massage modules popped out twice, stopping the treatment. I was able to pop them back in, but the problem could easily stump a user not willing to check the guts. In addition, the power button on the front seems a bit fragile. Hopefully, the company will make everything simpler and more solid for the final commercial product.
I love that the AiraWear is one of more insane concepts out there. However, the acupressure massage is not as good as you get from a portable massage cushion that can heat, knead, roll and vibrate. In addition, it's pretty delicate for a product that's meant to be worn when you're out and about. That said, Tware does have a track record in building similar products, so it's not a huge risk for the crowdfunding price of $99. For that sum (and not a lot more) there will probably be enough takers who want the craziest gadget on the block. The campaign is now live on Kickstarter, with a funding goal of $75,000.