OMSignal smart shirts make me doubt the smart clothing market

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I ordered my OMSignal shirt from the crowd-funding launch page back in May 2014. 8 months and 50 “exciting updates from the founders” later, I received it. Last week, I tested it on a hard workout at my gym and within about 10 minutes I was ready to call the experiment quits. I didn’t. I suffered through the workout with the shirt on in the name of science and product reviews.

What I learned surprised me. Not only was this shirt not ready for prime-time as a piece of smart clothing, but it made me call into question the entire sub-segment called “smart clothing.” Let me explain the specific flaws first and then the more general sector-wide questions second.

OMSignal’s One-point-Oh-No (1.0)

Preface: I get that building stuff is hard

I want to preface this by saying that the founders seem to have a very strong passion for performance improvement and creating something new and useful for athletes. Making stuff is hard, and making new categories of stuff is even harder. I’m not saying I could do this better. I couldn’t. That caveat aside, here is what I found when I tested the shirt.

You have to start with the customer

Who is the customer for this product? Ostensibly it is for people who are into basic fitness or maybe even recreational endurance sports like running and cycling.

 

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“Fitness” types as I’ve defined them below want the basics, like an ability to track steps and calories and activity from their single sport like golfing or jogging or dancing and they don’t want ore need much beyond steps, calories, and maybe heart rate.

“Recreational Endurance” folks have a slightly higher bar (depending on a number of factors) and often start to look for sport-specific datasets and views (like “pace” vs. “speed” for running vs. cycling respectively.) They may also be starting to pay attention to more data such as sleep, and overall workload or recovery.

Once you get into the Competitive Endurance type users, you’re looking at competitive runners, cyclists, Crossfitters, triathletes, swimmers, ultra-runners, etc. and if they’re data-centric, then their requirements get pretty heavy. I’ve tried to capture that in this table below but you can skip it and move to the next point too.

 

Screenshot 2015-01-27 16.07.49(click to enlarge)

Mismatched requirements?

As with all product, you need to start from requirements, and then use technology to build a solution. But I can’t imagine a world where an athlete would say that they need to track heart rate, respiration and steps during a workout.

Yet the application, which I’ll get to next, allows you to pull “lifestyle reports” as well as “fitness reports”. But with a battery that lasts a maximum 10 hours at full charge, you can’t get a full day of data off the shirt anyway. So I don’t see the point of even tracking “lifestyle data” like sleep or steps since the battery life won’t support it.

And I’ve talked to many athletes, and I have yet to find one that cares about their respiration rate data. I just haven’t found that unicorn.

It should be called “clothing that is smart”, not “smart clothing”

Generally speaking, athletes of all kinds are VERY particular about their clothing. Clothes are functional, providing moisture management, protection from the elements, heat regulation, cooling through zippers and/or evaporation. Technical wear is called technical wear for a reason. It’s part of an athlete’s core equipment.

OMSignal’s shirt fails the very first and most important test which is “is this a functional piece of sports equipment.”. It is a terribly uncomfortable, tight, wrinkly, thick, scratchy, uncomfortable textile. There’s just no way around it.

  • It is hard to get on, it is too tight, and it doesn’t “hang” correctly
  • it soaked up moisture like a sponge (and wouldn’t let it evaporate for 2 days!)
  • it is too heavy so within 10 minutes of starting an aggressive workout, I wanted to tear the damned thing off (but couldn’t since it was my sensor – more on that later.)
  • I was boiling hot within a few minutes of the start of a long, heavy workout, and as soon as the workout stopped, I froze because of the amount of cold water that was sitting in the cloth.
  • the material is itchy, likely because of the anti-microbial compounds in the fibers.

It seems that the priorities got messed up here. It should have been designed by people who first and foremost know how to design good technical wear, and then in collaboration with them, enhanced it to make it smarter.

Here is a gallery of photos that shows the difference between the OMSignal clothing and a standard Under Armor compression shirt. You can see the crazy difference in build quality.

(click any photo to go to gallery view)

The app is way too minimal

I get it, this is version 1.0 of the application. And I’m a fan of ship, then build more later. But given that there are now approximately a gazillion fitness apps out and a Cambrian explosion of activity, fitness, and sports tracking devices out there, this app has a lot of issues:

  • it crashed frequently.
  • it only shows heart rate, respiration rate, calories, and steps (see above – not sure why you’d care to track 10 hours of steps) and a new number that OM invented called “Push” that was not explained anywhere in enough detail that you knew what to do with it.
  • As noted above, I have asked a lot of people and I still can’t find a single athlete who cares about respiration rate. It’s not actionable data.
  • the UI was clunky and you had to move these little bubbles around to see your data. It was pretty but useless.
  • there is no way to get the data out of the system and the forums at OMSignal.com are filled with questions such as “why would you want your data out?” from their customer support team.
  • the totals were accurate for HR, avg HR, and calories but the time in zone data was completely and deeply incorrect.
  • the transmitter can not stream the data anywhere else. It’s good data coming off the shirt, so if it was streaming out (in parallel) on the BTLE HR profile, then your phone could pick up that data stream and route it to something like Wahoo Fitness or your fitness app of choice but as it stands, the only place the data can go is into their app and then it dead-ends there.
  • Since the transmitter can’t dual-stream the data, a user would have to wear a SECOND sensor and collector (like a Scosche arm band HR strap) and stream that to their BTLE savvy sport watch or phone in parallel. But if you’re going to do that, why wear the shirt in the first place?

 

What does all this mean for “smart clothing”?

I used to be very bullish on the whole smart clothing idea. However, now that I’ve tested so many apps, devices, some clothing, and also some skin-based patches, I’ve rethought things and am wondering if “smart clothing” will be nothing more than a historical footnote in long arc of sport and fitness technology.

What any “Level 3+” athlete wants is to have a 24×7 picture of their training volume, the workload that has put on their system, their food, and their recovery including their sleep. Today that’s pretty hard to do and requires a number of devices. However, as we move towards products like the AmpStrip, a wearable bandage that has up to 7 days of continuous 24×7 high-quality data, I see less (no?) need for smart clothes.

As a serious but recreational athlete, I might wear 2-4 pair of underwear, 2-3 pairs of shorts or pants, and 2-4 shirts in any given day. I choose the materials carefully for my sports and change everything frequently. I’m not inclined to use one piece of gear over and over and over again, nor will I buy $100 shirts to replace the $15 ones I workout in today. I don’t think I’m alone in this.

All of this to say: I’m not sure I see the point in $200 “smart shirts” or “smart shorts” or smart clothing of any type. I think they may find niches solving very specific issues for specific use cases but I’m doubtful that as a category that it will succeed broadly. It’s not just a cost issue, it’s a human-centric design issue. People like to work out in clean clothes and then change them when they’re done their workouts. You can’t track a person 24×7 with clothing. It’s not socially or culturally acceptable, and the costs are too high on a per-piece basis.

I think we may end up skipping from apps, wrist bands, and watches directly to bandages and eventually to subcutaneous devices (think RFID chips for your pet) and/or ingestibles (smart pill sensors) and bypass the whole smart clothing thing entirely.

(4) Comments

  1. OK…we are allowed to disagree…the OM shirt I agree has all of the problems that you say (I like fresh clothes for workout #2 in the day too) but it’s so early in product development – could you possibly be too harsh or critical at this early stage of development?

    • Troy Angrignon

      I don’t think it’s harsh to address the fact that a company that takes 9 months to make a shirt can’t make a shirt that’s wearable. Their competitor Hexoskin (the founders used to be partners and split) managed to pull off building a nice wearable compression shirt that doesn’t feel like this. This is just a bad piece of clothing, smarts or not. I think the critical issue is that when you change form factor (i.e. from wrist bands to clothes, you probably want to find a job for it to do that bands can’t do. Like Heddoko.com that will do 3d movement analysis. That’s a GENIUS thing to do with smart clothes. But replicating HR collection? Makes no sense to do the same job as we’ve always done (HR data collection) but do it at 2-4x the price.

  2. Regretfully, I have to agree. Becoming an early adopter (ordered in May 2014) may have been a mistake in this case. As an avid hiker with mild resperitory problems, the idea of a shirt that could track HR, stress level, steps and breathing 24/7 (as the video implied) was very attractive. The reality has proven less impressive. The OMsignal product is little more than a standard heart monitor sewn into a shirt. Polar could have provided this long ago. Customer service is off the charts friendly and accommodating but you really do expect a better product after 9 months of delays. I have worn both the sleeveless and the short sleeve versions while working out. I have worn the short sleeve version hiking. Both are hot and scratchy. Both produce an itchy sensation bordering on a slight burn directly under the sensors. The shirts do not collect a whole lot of data and there is little information on how to use the breathing and push data. The app does not store the data for any meaningful length of time so unless you manually record your reports, they go away after 7 days. It seems like OMsignal had put out a lot of PR with little more than vaporware and then rushed to get something/anything out the door before it became clear they did not really have a viable product.

    The shirts can only be returned for exchange, not refund, so I will try to get as much use as possible out of mine but will be much more careful about becoming an early adopter of wearables in the future.

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