Running with Vi, the AI personal trainer: First impressions

I helped kickstart Vi: The AI Personal Trainer about 9 months ago, and this week it arrived – compelling me to go running for only the second time in months and much against my better judgement to make sure I get some value out of my impulse purchase.

A neat unfolding box lets you meet Vi for the first time

First, an introduction – Vi is both a bit of hardware and a bit of software (split running on the device and your smartphone) that acts as a virtual personal trainer for runners. In principle, it collects data about your running and then using some machine learning feeds back on your activity in a way that is tailored to whatever goal you’ve set – de-stressing, running faster, running further, losing weight etc.

The hardware of Vi is a wearable sensor, wireless headphone and microphone combo that sits about the neck, tracking heart rate and step count as you’re out on a run/excruciatingly slow jog (delete as applicable). The software of Vi, and arguably where most of the value lies runs both on the device and as a smartphone app synched via Bluetooth. While there’s enough brains on the device itself for it to welcome you and guide you through initial setup on its own it’s the smartphone app that’s likely doing the heavy lifting in actual use.

Meeting Vi

Clearly a lot of thought’s gone into the out-of-box experience for new Vi owners, with a high quality unfolding box hiding the device itself, quick-start guide, charging cable, carry case and a set of replacement in-ear gels and supports of different sizes.

Lifting Vi out of the packaging caused it (inadvertently?) turn on, and a tiny voice asking if you could hear her could just be heard from the earphones. The device is a collar, of sorts, two tapered cylinders where the sensor set lives connected by a very flexible band and is designed to sit around the neck and rest along the collarbone. The majority of the device rubberised but for the two ends, which terminate in metallic caps available in several colours – mine an elegant bronze. The earphones are connected individually to the two collarbone pieces with short adjustable leads meaning no dangling cables while worn – the phones themselves sharing the same metallic accent as the main body.

One earphone contains a flashing green heart-rate sensor, the other a touch sensor for prompting Vi to start a voice command. Both have a soft rubber appendage, curved to sit in the lobe of the ear to secure the earphone. The metallic outsides of the earphones are magnetic, one concave and one convex that can attach to each other around the neck when not required.

On first start-up, after a quick check that you can hear her, Vi directs you to download the smartphone app and pair the device – at present, that app’s in beta as is the whole platform but pairing was automatic in a way that pairing my Fitbit with my phone never was.

Once done, the app asks a series of questions – age, height, weight and then asks you to define and prioritise your fitness goals – all of which is meant to tailor Vi’s coaching of your runs.

Let’s go running

To kick off a workout, I started the Vi app and picked what I wanted to do – run a specific distance, run for an amount of time or a free run – let’s start nice and easy and go for a 3 mile jaunt.

Oh, OK then

After a couple of false starts (the app wants location enabled for fine-grained tracking of your route and distance travelled, and asks permission to access your media so you can have a playlist going as you’re running – you also need to either attach a Facebook account or create an account with LifeBEAM to track your stats), you’re off. By default you get a configurable and skippable two-minute warmup, where Vi directed me to start a slow jog to get things moving.

At this point Vi is talking to you through the earphones – the phone is in your pocket or mounted to your arm, and in theory all the information you need is relayed by voice. The two minute warm-up was also the start of what felt like a neat tutorial mode which lasted for the rest of the half hour I was out.

Vi checks she is pronouncing your name correctly, introducing you to yes/no questions and what amounts of a mic-check. And over the course of your outing taught how to trigger a voice command, some basic voice commands that are available and will receive periodic notifications of your distance travelled and pace.

Hardware performance and comfort during running

First off, it was blowing a gale while I was out and to begin with I had a real fear that the collar would blow off my neck entirely but that was unfounded – it stuck with me without issue. It was also surprisingly comfortable while worn – I’m not sure that I noticed it was there for the majority of the time I was out, and it sits quite stably against your collarbone even as your bobbing along or turning your head to check crossings. This is probably a combination of the rubberised covering and the weight distribution, but regardless it’s a success.

The earphones stayed pretty solidly in my ears for the duration and were as comfortable as any others I’ve worn. As it went, sound quality for my playlist was actually really good and with such short cables I didn’t get the same wind and friction noise transmitted through the earphones as I do with my in-ear Sennheisers.

The physical controls on the collar are big enough to feel and press unambiguously while running which is a big plus, altering the volume of your music or Vi’s coaching as you go.

If there’s one problem with the earphones it’s that you need to remember that the right one is a software button – which means that if you do feel the phone becoming a bit loose, pushing it into your ear either triggers a voice command prompt or (as happened at least twice in my run) terminates whatever Vi was telling you at the time. Not sure what the solution to that is beyond remembering to push the phone in from its barrel rather than just pushing but that’s some tens or years of muscle memory to overcome.

Vi’s coaching

Vi introduced her plan for the run during the warmup as a training exercise in picking and keeping a steady pace – no specific times in mind and no circuit work to start with, which may have been a feature of the specific goals I set in the app or may simply be a way to get a good baseline and provide opportunities for Vi to teach you how to operate the device with your voice.

I got periodic information about how far I’d travelled and my pace, and after the second mile when my pace was within a fistful of seconds of my first mile I was cheerily congratulated which, even if from a machine, was actually oddly reassuring. I was also encouraged to up my cadence (and told why I should) about a mile and a half in, which was presumably triggered after monitoring my step rate and seeing that my technique needed work.

When Vi wasn’t talking to me, in theory she could be triggered to provide feedback by touching right earphone and speaking after the beep and there are a range of commands that I’ll be trying out on my next voyage. There were also subtle chimes in the last hundred yards or so of each mile run, building up towards the mile marker itself.

Voice interface, meet Scotland

Now – this all sounds splendid on paper but living as I do in Edinburgh and given it was a pretty windy day I only managed to get Vi to pick up on what I was saying twice out of probably ten attempts during the outing which was obviously disappointing though understandable given how hard it can be to hold a phone conversation in the Scottish outdoors… It’s also got a workaround – the volume + and – buttons on the collar can be used to answer yes or no as required, but that nugget of information wasn’t revealed to me until I was back at the house doing a warm-down. I’m hoping that on a nicer day Vi and I will understand each other a bit better.

The other thing I noted so far was that there was noticeable lag between a successful request for your heart-rate and Vi giving you the reading – six or seven seconds for the one attempt I made. This was also the case within the app itself, with a little beating heart icon taking around ten seconds before an actual heart rate was displayed after the run – I’m not sure if this is an issue with the fit of the earphone or a software issue due to the pre-release nature of the app.

Post-run analysis and the app

I had to end the run using the app, rather than by answering Vi’s questions due to the previously-mentioned mic issues but once done I got detailed information:

  • Visual indication of the route I took
  • Standard high-level stats like distance travelled, average pace, run duration, average heart rate, calories burned, average speed…
  • Speed vs heart rate chart
  • Pace vs heart rate chart
  • Step rate over time chart

There’re also in-app achievements giving you some personal records to beat, and presumably all of the stats collected will filter into Vi’s coaching program for me over time – we’ll see on Run #2.

Closing thoughts

First off – this is one short run with a newly-released piece of hardware and beta software, and I’m pretty happy with what I’ve seen so far even with the odd issue.

The hardware of Vi feels premium and works very well given that it’s such an unusual form factor for a wearable of this type – obviously a lot of thought and design work has gone into making the collar piece sit just so and it totally shows in use. And the quality of the sound was a pleasant surprise.

The only disappointment with the experience so far was the mic not working well enough for Vi and I to communicate most of the time. Could have been strong wind, could have been my accent, could have been my laboured breathing – to be honest short of the mic having a wind muff I’m not sure that anything would have managed tonight though so I’m unfazed and we’ll see how the setup performs next time before I start paying for diction lessons.

On the software front the simple friendliness of the scripting and voice acting gives Vi a definite personality that was plenty encouraging and having useful info given to me passively and without my having to take my eyes off the road is a big plus over a running watch. I’m curious to see how Vi approaches the next few runs given the goals I’ve set the system.

So when my knee stops complaining after this run I’ll be back out again and seeing what Vi’s got in store.

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