Vi review: a personal assistant for your workouts, but it needs some help

Friday, 01 September 2017, 12:06:02 AM. An AI running coach, in your ears

The promise of Vi is a good one: A human-sounding AI running coach, built directly into high-quality, bio-sensing earbuds that learn from you, adapt, and help you run faster, longer, and safer. The reality is a headset that sounds great, provides some motivation, but ultimately has a long way to go before it will pass for truly — let alone artificially — intelligent.

Vi (pronounced “Vee”), is a $250 set of Bluetooth headphones with a companion app bearing the same name. It’s made by the New York-based company LifeBeam, which raised a whopping $1.7 million on Kickstarter in June of 2016 to build Vi. It was the highest-funded fitness wearable in Kickstarter history. To raise that kind of cash, the company made some serious promises, which set up high expectations. At this point, I’d say it’s about halfway toward meeting those, but it’s continuing to improve as updates arrive.

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Vi is a Bluetooth headset of the neck-collar variety (aka neckbuds). It has a thin wire extending to each earbud. On the right side of the collar are three buttons: Plus, Minus, and Power / Multifunction. These rubber buttons are easy to find with your thumb, but you’ll have to remember which is which, because you can’t really feel the difference. On the end of that side is a removable cap, which is where you plug in a Micro USB for charging.

The earbuds themselves have rubber tips and fins to keep them secure in your ears, and it comes with four sizes of each. The right bud is designed to be touch sensitive, so when you want to say something to Vi, you give it a little tap and speak after the tone. In practice, that bud frequently requires multiple, hard taps before it wakes up. The left earbud contains the optical heart rate monitor (HRM). Ear-based HRMs have been getting more popular over the last few years as they offer a more stable and (theoretically) reliable place to check your pulse compared to your flailing wrists, and they don’t require an awkward chest strap.

Vi is sweat and rain-resistant. It also has a built-in accelerometer, gyroscope, and barometer, the former two to better analyze your form, and the latter to get altitude data. More on those in a moment. The backs of the earbuds magnetically attach to each other or to the ends of the collar to keep the wires from getting twisted, which is convenient and clever, and a small, cloth-carrying case is included to store them when not in use.

One of the most notable things about Vi is that its audio is powered by Harman/Kardon, and it sounds absolutely terrific. Turning the volume up 6/10 of the way was more than enough to overpower the sounds of the city, but more importantly the sound you get is rich and full. There is plenty of bass—which is especially important for me during workouts because it’s what keeps my feet moving (and I mostly listen to hip-hop), but the highs and mids are well-balanced, and everything sounded crisp. Personally, I don’t love the look or feel of the neck collar, but it’s one of the best-sounding workout headsets I’ve ever used. But as solid as the hardware design is, my experience with Vi’s software was decidedly more mixed.

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Here’s where things get interesting. The cornerstone of Vi is the promise of an AI running coach that sounds human. To that end, LifeBeam hired an actress to voice Vi, having her record thousands of words, names, and phrases. To that end, the company succeeded. Vi sounds very human (if a bit more chipper than I’d personally like). She’s easy to understand, she cracks (bad) jokes, and provides motivation as you run. She doesn’t have any of that obnoxious text-to-voice bot feel about her, which is cool.

The problem is that no matter how good she sounds, Vi can only be as good as her app, and that app needs work. To be fair, the majority of my testing was with the Android version, which I later was told is about six to eight weeks behind in development from the iOS app.

When you first set it up, you’re asked to enter in some vitals (gender / age / height / weight) as well as your goal. You can choose Go Farther, Lose Weight, Go Faster, Reduce Stress, Maintain Fitness, or Improve Fitness. I hadn’t run in months and there was an event in October I needed to train for, so I chose Go Farther. Then I spent about half an hour trying to get the Vi headset and my Google Pixel XL to recognize each other. When they finally did, it was another 20 minutes or so of firmware updates.

The set up process was tedious and fraught with bugs

Then I had to figure out the music problem. Vi integrates with music you have stored on your phone, but I’ve been streaming-only for the last few years, and the only streaming service that the Vi app currently integrates with is Spotify Premium. Vi does work as standard Bluetooth headphones, so you can use whatever streaming music app you like, you’ll just have to switch back and forth between it and the Vi app if you want to change playlists, etc.

But while Spotify is integrated into the app, that integration is shaky at best. Choosing your playlist isn’t entirely intuitive. There also isn’t an obvious way to start/stop music within the app. Sometimes I had to go into the Spotify app directly to hit play, and sometimes Vi would just do it for me. Sometimes the two would fight each other over which playlist to play. Frequently a song would end and there would just be silence, and I had to mash buttons until another song would start. Sometimes the multifunction button on the buds would start a song, and sometimes it didn’t do anything.This happened in both the iOS and Android versions. The good news is that when music finally did come out it sounded great.

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Anyway, finally, I hit the sidewalk for my first 1.5-mile run. Vi says it takes about two hours of running for her to learn about you and dial in specific training advice. During that time she’ll give you some general tips about form (“stand tall”), and she’ll even help you improve. Leveraging the motion sensors, Vi can tell when you're taking big, clunky steps that impart a lot of shock to your joints. Not only will Vi advise you to take shorter, quicker steps, but she’ll play a beat for you to step to. Once that’s over she’ll tell you what your step rate is and congratulate you if you hit the target or advise you that it takes some practice if you aren’t quite there yet. You can bring that back any time by tapping your right ear and saying, “Step to the beat.” It’s one of Vi’s best features

After two hours Vi’s Effort Guide is supposed to kick in, but for me it didn’t. One of the software engineers at LifeBeam had to take the app apart and send me a reworked version. That finally got it going (the company claims this is a very rare anomaly).

Once up and running, Vi delivered tips on cadence and some motivating platitudes (“If you hit a wall, build a bridge and run over it!”). She’d congratulate me when I broke a personal distance record or when I was about to break my best time for five miles. She also got to know the way I run. When I’m at my average speed she’ll say, “Alright, you’re at your cruising speed.” If I pick it up she’ll tell me that I’m at my “hustle” pace, and if I push it even faster she’ll tell me I’ve gone to “Beast Mode.” Roar. I actually found this to be pretty useful as a pushed into longer distances and started to lose perspective on how fast I was going.

When I started my most recent run she said (paraphrasing), “Your last run was your fastest five-mile time, but don’t try to break your record every time you run, so maybe take it easy this time and just enjoy the run.” Pretty good advice, really. Unfortunately that’s currently as close as she comes to developing a training plan for you, which is a vital part of what a coach does. That capability is planned for an update expected to arrive later this fall.

Sometimes parts of Vi’s brain don’t talk to each other

Sometimes it seems that certain parts of Vi’s brain don’t talk to each other. For example, Vi has a barometer so she can sense the elevation you ascend / descend, and we know it works because at the end of your workout that’s one of the stats that is displayed. However, it seems to have no awareness of this while you’re actually working out, so as I’m starting to climb some hills Vi admonishes me that my pace is inconsistent. “Yeah, no kidding,” I wanted to say, with my heart trying to escape from my ribcage. Also, Vi obviously knows what time it is, but she won’t understand you if you ask for it. The Vi app displays a map when you’re done, but not during the run, which became a real problem for me last week while on an out-and-back run I encountered a fork in the road on my way back and couldn’t remember which way I’d come from. Luckily, I was testing the Vi against a Garmin Fenix 5X, which had built-in maps that saved my bacon on a very hot day. Vi also doesn’t warn you when she’s low on battery, she just dies rather unceremoniously (though her 8-hour battery life is quite good).

It must be said, too, that intelligence is more than just sounding smart. Vi sounds great when she talks, but I found she could only understand five phrases when I spoke them. “Heart rate,” “Run to the beat,” “Stop,” “How am I doing?” (which gives you current stats), and “Start effort guide.” There is also supposedly “song radio” which creates a Spotify station based on the song currently playing, but I never got it to work on Android.

While the app version is 1.0, this still feels very much like a beta. Walking mode was just added for iOS, but it really needs intervals and training plans before it’ll actually start seeming “smart.” Treadmill mode won’t be added until October, either. The app will push data to Google Fit or Apple HealthKit, and an update to the iOS app recently added Strava integration as well, but if you’re a dedicated user of Runkeeper, MapMyRun, Endomondo, Runtastic, etc, you’re out of luck for now.

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One of the biggest issues I experienced was getting Vi to see my heart rate. I tried every combination of fit, using the various fins and rubber tips. I watched the tutorial videos. I chatted with LifeBeam’s online help desk and emailed with its engineers. Finally, I found that if I pulled the bud out just a little bit, and had it rotated just right, then it would see my pulse, finally. Unfortunately, this breaks the seal which makes the music sound much worse in that ear. I tried it out on some friends and family members who also found it tricky. Some runs it stayed in just fine. Others, it would drop out for long stretches at a time before coming back. Unfortunately, the app doesn’t notify you when it loses your heart rate, so you don’t know until your run is over that you had large sections of data missing. Very annoying.

It’s worth noting that I’m pretty sure my ears are fairly average in terms of shape and size. I’ve used many other HRM earbuds (most notably those made by Valencell) and I’ve always just popped them in and been good to go. I tried two different units (from two different production runs) of the Vi and experienced the same problem with both. From the various reviews I’ve read I seem to be in the minority, but it’s been a real issue for me.

For both units I tested, I’ve found that tapping on my right bud to alert Vi that I want to tell her something only works about 40 percent of the time. Sometimes it takes six taps before it acknowledges me. I wonder what I looked like, running down the street while slapping my ear like a maniac. When she finally does notice that I’m trying to get her attention she mishears me about 50 percent of the time, leading me to repeat the whole process. Any wind or street noise at all and she can’t hear. I found myself shouting into my right collarbone (where the mic is). “Step! To! The! Beat!” I’ve felt cooler.

If I hit a steep hill and start power hiking it she’ll pause my workout, thinking I’ve stopped, which can be very frustrating. One of the of the review units I tested seemed to have a weak Bluetooth radio. Everything sounded fine until I put my phone into the pocket of my running shorts, and it immediately started cutting in an out. It was bad enough to be unlistenable, so I had to run with my phone in my hand. An arm strap for your phone would solve it, but you really shouldn’t need to use one, and I’ve never had Bluetooth headphones cut out like that at such a short distance. For what it’s worth, the other unit I tried didn’t seem to have that problem.

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Despite all the issues I had with Vi, I actually liked it. Somehow, it really did motivate me to run and to push into the longest distances that I’ve achieved in more than four years. Currently Vi is more of an active observer rather than a full-on coach, but sometimes increased awareness is all you need to self-correct. Once Vi has actual training plans, she’ll become far more useful.

That said, $250 is a lot to spend on a product that still has so many bugs. I just spent too much time being frustrated by my experience. These earbuds really do sound great and most of Vi’s deficiencies can be corrected by software updates, but I have to hold off on recommending Vi until it has a few more features and a lot more polish.

Brent Rose is a freelance writer, actor, and filmmaker, currently traveling the U.S. living in a high-tech van, looking for stories to tell. Follow his adventures on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and at ConnectedStates.com.

Photography by Brent Rose for The Verge

5 Verge Score

LifeBEAM Vi

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Good Stuff

  • Excellent audio quality
  • Helps you maintain a healthy step rate
  • Provides some motivation

Bad Stuff

  • Lots of bugs
  • Finicky positioning for the HRM
  • No training plans yet

Buy for $199.99 from Amazon Buy for $249.00 from LifeBEAM

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