Running with an AI 'personal trainer' is fun, but expensive

The 'Vi' headphones aren't going to replace a flesh-and-blood drill instructor.

Daniel Cooper

The artificial intelligence that we hope will exist in our lifetimes is a world away from what's available right now. A thinking computer that knows us better than we know ourselves, and can make us better than we are, is still the stuff of fantasy. But if our goals are simple and easy to understand, does an AI really need to be that smart to get the job done? For instance, can a pair of swanky headphones with an AI personal trainer make me a better runner?

It's a question that I've been musing about ever since I started testing Vi, which its creators call the "first true AI personal trainer." It combines a pair of bio-sensing headphones and an app from Lifebeam, a military biosensor company founded by a pair of former Israeli air force pilots. Lifebeam's side hustle is to take those same sensors and bake them into consumer products like cycling helmets and baseball caps.

Here, the company has added that technology to a pair of Bluetooth earphones, along with a raft of other fitness tracking equipment. Buried inside the "halo" that sits around your neck is a six-axis gyroscope, barometer and accelerometer. In addition, the $249 device will work as a regular set of headphones, packing a microphone and Harman/Kardon-branded sound.

The device was a smash hit when it launched on Kickstarter last year, earning nearly $1.7 million, far beyond its initial goal of $100,000. It's worth saying that the hardware concept isn't new, since Intel and SMS did the same job with 2015's BioSport. Similarly, Jabra came out with its Sport Coach headphones, although those didn't have the optical heart rate sensor. Lifebeam is hoping that Vi, the AI personal trainer with voice coaching that ships with the product, will be the big draw for its headphones.

Once you've punched in your vital statistics and connected Vi to Healthkit, Google Fit or Strava, you're ready to run. Vi needs 120 minutes of data before it truly begins to work, so your first few runs are more about training the app than training your own body. Despite suffering a damaged right knee that was close to giving out, I braved the indifferent English weather and began my testing.

There are four options from which you can choose: Distance Run, Time Run, Free Run and Cycling, and the app also lets you decide how chatty you want Vi to be. Selecting Free Run and asking Vi to "lead the way," I began to run through the app's tutorial level. It begins well, with the voice actress -- there is no way to change Vi's gender -- speaking in a faux robot voice before admitting that it was a joke and chatting more naturally.

During these initial runs, Vi will run through a pre-recorded spiel about how the system will work to coach you through your journey. You can tap the right earbud to activate the microphone and bark vocal commands at the platform. So if you ask "How am I doing?" you'll be told your heart rate, speed, pace and step rate. Simply asking for a specific statistic, such as heart rate, will get Vi to offer that statistic on its own.

You can also set audio beacons at specific distances during your run that gently ping when you approach them. The closer you get, the louder the ping, and I set my beacons to launch every kilometer so that I had a sense of achieving a goal. It's a neat effect, and one that helps you perk up when your stamina might otherwise begin to flag.

During my runs, Vi told me that my stride length was too long and I wasn't hitting the ground enough, risking fatigue and injury. As such, it offered up a feature called "Step to the Beat," in which the background music is silenced in favor of a drum track. You're then asked to make sure your foot is striking the ground in time with each drum hit, something I found quite enjoyable.

Some of the things that were promised in Vi's initial Kickstarter pitch didn't make themselves apparent during my short testing period. For instance, on a day with bad weather, Vi was meant to suggest that I work out indoors instead of braving the elements. That didn't happen, although the app offers no options to exercise beyond running or cycling, so perhaps the feature was quietly dropped.

From Vi's Kickstarter.

Overall, the experience of running with Vi was pleasant, and I can only attribute that to the power of motivation that it offers. Even though it's little more than a series of pre-recorded statements being played at random, there is something about being cheered on -- a sense of support -- that's useful. It would probably wear out its welcome after long enough, but I suspect judicious use of the system could be somewhat useful for fair-weather runners.

Unfortunately, some elements of the Vi experience weren't quite as smooth or enjoyable. The microphone is woeful at picking up voice commands when you're running in an area with plenty of ambient sound. As I ran at full pelt down a busy road, all Vi would do was apologize for not quite picking up the words I was saying.

I got plenty of funny looks when I had to slow down, and then stop, trying to speak clearly enough to be understood. I'm sure the patrons of a local supermarket thought I was ill after seeing me bellow "Step to the beat!" into my own neckband. Unfortunately, after a while I gave up and intentionally sped up my run to trigger the feature on its own.

The app itself is beautiful and minimalist, offering plenty of ways to dive deeper into your data at the end of a run. However, there's still plenty of work to be done with the music controls, which do not work at all. Playing library music was an utter chore, as the carousel bounces around when you're trying to skip a spoken-word track in the playlist. Perhaps the designers paid more attention to the Spotify Premium integration than making sure it worked with your own music.

Then there's the fact that the AI that Vi boasts simply isn't that intelligent, and the system is doomed never to live up to its promises. After all, it's simply a slightly more sophisticated pattern recognition machine with pre-recorded audio prompts. You could just as easily listen to a specific coaching podcast and get a similar experience, albeit with a little more customization.

Admittedly, you won't get the learning experience that Vi offers, and it will tweak its coaching as it learns more about your running. If you set fat-burning as a goal, and you're getting closer to your fat-burning zone, Vi will offer some judicious encouragement to get you there. Alternatively, if it knows that you're close to flaking out and slowing down, the system will help you maintain a steadier, more consistent pace. The more data you give it, the better the insights you get back.

Overall, I enjoyed using Vi, because it's a perfectly elegant way to run, and the voice coaching is friendly and pleasant enough. I'd like to think that I'd continue to use it, in the hope of getting ever smarter recommendations and using it to become a better runner. But one thing, above all of my other gripes, stops me from recommending this to anyone: the price. After all, $249 is a lot of money to spend on a device that does something you can achieve for a hell of a lot less.

If you really want a pair of Bluetooth halo earbuds with Harman/Kardon sound, you can pick up LG's Tone for a lot less. There are plenty of apps that offer voice coaching, as well as podcasts that'll do a similar job -- sometimes for free. Since you have to bring your phone along with you, it's not as if you need the motion-tracking abilities of the Vi headset anyway.

If you're a hardcore fitness enthusiast who wants a premium product, cash be damned, then sure. Vi is a beautiful piece of equipment that offers good sound and doubles as a decent pair of running 'phones. But for everyone else, it's probably not worth the extraordinary premium.

Does an artificial intelligence need to be smart to make you a better runner? No, but then, it's not really an artificial intelligence, is it?