When it comes to fitness gadgets the general rule is that the current generation tend to overpromise and under deliver.
But in the case of the artificial intelligence headphones called Vi, designed to improve your running, I’ve been blown away by how much more it does than I imagined.
Not that I haven’t had some issues with them, but the way they have helped correct and improve my running form far outweighs the annoyances. I can run longer and faster with less knee pain and soreness.
Vi gained attention in 2016 when it raised nearly $US1.7 million on Kickstarter on a goal of $US100,000.
I tried Vi for a wide variety of workouts before I came to the conclusion that I love this device.
Vi is a set of weighted Bluetooth earphones priced at $250 and chock full of sensors like a heart rate monitor, an accelerometer, a gyrometer, barometer, and voice recognition. When used with the speech recognition, AI-powered smartphone app, Vi becomes a personal trainer.
One difference between Vi and a regular set of bluetooth earphones are these curved bits on the earpiece. They are heart rate sensors that you place in the corner of your outer ear. I found the HR tracking to be surprisingly accurate, which is really important if you are training for a race and using heart-rate zone training.
Vi includes an iPhone or Android app that tracks your basic running statistics, like time, mileage, speed, heart rate, etc. Through the app, you set your goals, such as losing weight, getting faster, running farther, reducing stress, or improving fitness, which helps Vi personalise the guidance it gives during your runs.
For instance, Vi includes an 'effort guide.' The more you run with it, the more it knows when you are working hard, working too hard, or slacking off. If you want to lose weight, it guides you to stay in your aerobic fat-burning zone, which it calculates for you. Or it will tell you that you are about to break your calorie-burning record to encourage you. Things like that.
It would be nice if you could choose different versions of the voice. VI's a little cheerier than Siri and she works a little too hard at sounding hip and human, but it sounds OK enough.
There were a number of times that Vi really blew me away. During one long run on a paved bike path, Vi knew that I was running on concrete. She explained that this was hard on my knees and suggested I move to a softer path. On her advice, I immediately moved over to the gravel running path that was next to the paved one.
Another mind-blowing moment: I was trying to increase my tempo and Vi gave me a lecture on not swinging my arms across my body. I looked down, and sure enough, my forearm was in front of my tummy, not out to the side. She has since caught me doing this a few times and corrected me. She can sense a side-to-side sway.
The biggest lesson I learned from Vi was 'step rate.' I'm a very slow runner, a jogger really. To run faster I used to increase my stride. That's exhausting. Vi has me concentrating on shorter strides but faster steps. She's guided me to 171 steps/minute instead of my usual 154-ish. I still tend to slip back to slower step-pace during a long run and she reminds me to step it up. Overall, my step pace is increasing.
You can glance at the app on your phone while running to see stats but you don't have to. Simply tap the right earbud and say a command out-loud. Say 'Heart Rate' and get your HR. Say 'How am I doing?' and Vi tells you stats like heart rate, speed, pace, step rate and power.
One downside: you have to be comfortable with barking a command out loud while running, which seems like you are talking to yourself and will make other people turn around and look at you.
Vi is designed to work really well with Spotify Premium (not the free version). The best feature: If a song comes on that fits your running mood perfectly, tap the right earbud and say 'Song radio' and Vi creates a Spotify station based on the song.
But my experience with Vi was far from perfect. If the earphones weren't 100% charged they gave me weird issues, like turning off unexpectedly during a run when I pressed a button to skip a song and refusing to turn back on, or not understanding any voice commands. The battery is supposed to last 8 hours, but I never run that long.
Even though the device knows a lot about where I ran, it never adjusted its advice to me for running on hills/trails vs. streets. I do most of my running on trails and can't keep the same step rate/pace running up a hill trail that I can on flat pavement. I'm hoping over time as Vi learns me, the advice will become even more tailored to the course I'm running.
I haven't been consistent with my running this summer and Vi definitely gave me grief for it. It gave me this snark one time after I hadn't been running with the device for two weeks. (In my defence, I did workout during that time. I just didn't run.)
Vi also has a 'cycling' setting which I tried once but won't use again. The problem is that earphones are too good. They fit very snugly. That makes them comfortable and keeps them from falling out when I run. But it also made them noise cancelling, especially with the music on. I can't hear traffic with them in, making them unsafe for biking. Unfortunately, you have to have both of them snugly in place for the HR monitor to work, so I couldn't just leave one ear out to make them safer when riding. Vi also doesn't offer bike coaching so it's just for music, HR tracking and distance.
I also had trouble using the device to answer phone calls while working out. They worked great to make a call but my iPhone defaulted to its own speaker when I answered a call. I still need to troubleshoot that. However, the sound quality is very good and I used them simply as earphones quite a bit.
I'd love to tell you that after a few weeks of training with Vi I'm significantly faster. Sadly, I'm not. But that's not the device's fault: I haven't put in the work. However, I won't run seriously without this device again. By running consistently and listening to the personalised advice Vi gives me, I know I could train for big goals with less chance of injury than going it on my own.
I recommend this device for 1) absolute beginners; 2) for people who primarily run in the city, not on trails where mobile data coverage is spotty; 3) for casual runners or racers who would like to improve without injury but aren't ready to join a club or pay for a coach; 4) for people who want a comfortable Bluetooth headset for running and don't want to wear a second device for fitness tracking, too.
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