Tech by VICE

The Future of Fitness Is Always Around the Corner

A new headset uses an AI "coach" to help users lose weight.

by Oliver Lee Bateman
Apr 23 2017, 1:00pm

Image: REDPIXEL.PL/Shutterstock

Once upon a time, everything seemed to make sense: buy the Bowflex for ten easy payments of $49.95 plus shipping and handling and yank on those cords until your fitness dreams came true.

Fitness technology has come a long way since then, but the dream market for exercise equipment has remained the home. Most people weren't about to invest in costly gym memberships that they probably wouldn't use. Even today, with the advent of branded workout regimens such as CrossFit and Pure Barre, only a tiny minority of people leave the home to pump iron.

"Once companies collect the data needed to develop apps that can effectively program workouts and motivate clients, coaches are finished," Habitry CEO Steven Ledbetter, who specializes in the science of motivational coaching, told Motherboard last December. "Most of us would rather learn from and work with a robot."

Now the robots, some of them anyway, have started to arrive. The flashiest entry into the marketplace is LifeBEAM's Vi device, an AI built into a high-quality Harman/Kardon headset that tracks a runner's heart rate, elevation, running cadence, speed, time, and location, then offers simple, targeted motivational feedback based on that data.

The device, developed by Israeli engineer Omri Yoffe after a successful Kickstarter launch, has a much more narrow focus than I had assumed prior to using the product over the past few weeks. I thought I was getting the all-in-one device that Steven Ledbetter had described to me, some kind of workout Alexa that would lead me through a host of different exercises.

"When we decided to work on this contextual, emotional, evolving AI, we decided right away to limit our focus," Yoffe said. "Since running is the easiest and cheapest exercise for people to do, we wanted to build a Vi that was intended solely for that, but would work extremely well for this purpose."

In Yoffe's opinion, getting the hardware right—the appropriate chipset, gyrometer, battery, and so forth—took precedence over everything else. "We kept the voice commands basic, too, because of course people have different accents and that kind of recognition is never perfect. We wanted a device that would consolidate several functions and give you your biometric readings, that could work well for running, and our other projects, like walking and cycling, could build on that."

In contrast with the Vi, which attempts regulate the pace of runners through targeted encouragement, the Compex muscle stimulator puts the power of electrical current in the palm of a user's hand. Muscle stimulators are relatively old devices, and have a checkered history—ineffective and at times dangerous electric "training belts" were sold to gullible trainees at the turn of the century. However, Compex and its competitors, like the Marc Pro, are used by physical therapists and personal trainers to loosen tight muscles and repair damaged tissue and have improved considerably over the past two decades, culminating with the recent release of a new wireless Compex model that directs electricity into the muscles without the use of cumbersome cords.

A muscle stim isn't going to give you huge muscles with zero training; it's not going to train for you while you just sit on your butt.

"At a thousand bucks a pop, these stimulators aren't toys and they aren't cheap," said trainer and physique athlete Douglas Alexander. "On top of that, a muscle stim isn't going to give you huge muscles with zero training; it's not going to train for you while you just sit on your butt. But that's a nice thought, and I can see why people always want something like that. At the end of the day, it's just another useful assistance device, not some all-in-one miracle machine."

Brandon Harris, a Hawaii-based ex-MMA fighter who invented the Jawzrsize, a thick block of rubber that offers the tantalizing prospect of "fitness for your face," understands that his company's product is among the lowest-tech of the innovative fitness devices entering the market this year.

"The primal bite is something I realized we were not developing when I'd bite into my mouthguard before a fight and get a surge of energy," he told Motherboard. "We didn't have a product that would let you train the jawline, the face, and so picking the right material, developing the Jawzrsize… it seems simple, but it's actually a huge leap forward because it is the first trainer of its kind."

The Jawzrsize, which many people—myself included—initially thought was a parody, became a very real viral hit on Facebook in January, when one of the company's sponsored Facebook videos received 12 million views. "I had a simple goal, which was to market this extremely necessary device, but we've done $200,000 in sales and the reports I'm getting are crazy," he said.

Science still hasn't reached a point at which the robots are exercising and injecting our bodies while we Netflix and chill.

While it may fill an underserved niche in terms of mouth fitness, the Jawzrsize doesn't aspire to be a universal exercise device, either--it's merely one more adjunct to a balanced workout. Home exercise options are multiplying, with engineers racing to solve problems as fast as entrepreneurs can invent them, but science still hasn't reached a point at which the robots are exercising and injecting our bodies while we Netflix and chill.

"I never envisioned Vi like that, as some kind of do-it-all AI that would result in the need for fewer skilled human coaches," said inventor Omri Yoffe. "It's a tool, a better and newer tool to be sure, but something that is meant to be a complement to what we're already doing, not a replacement for it. This idea of AIs replacing humans is not an idea that excites me; AIs are meant to be devices that can help humans achieve their peak performances."