Tech

We tried running with an AI personal trainer. It didn’t go well

Since smashing my knee up in a freak falling-out-of-bed accident over the Christmas break, I had been reluctant to pop on my running gear and get back into a proper fitness routine. Which is why Vi appealed to me.

Its a pair of snug-fitting Harman Kardon earphones armed with an in-ear heart rate sensor. They connect to an app to give you an artificially intelligent trainer (a breathy and chipper sounding American woman) who monitors your pace, learns how you run and offers advice and encouragement as you train. It's a running coach who lives inside your ear.

Her vast cloud-brain can tell when youre over-exerting yourself, or when you can push harder, and suggests routines and tips to hit personalised goals such as increased fitness, faster speeds or weight loss. Occasionally shell interject to remind you to appreciate nature, or to think about somewhere nice youd like to go on holiday. Its a bit like jogging with a chatty hairdresser.

But the software (I tested the Android version on a Pixel 2 XL) fell to pieces during my first few runs. The trainer repeatedly complained that she couldnt get a decent GPS signal, which is largely Londons fault, but then overestimated the distance Id run by about four kilometres. As the artificial intelligence congratulated me for running the worlds first two-minute mile, the app crashed so spectacularly that it somehow switched off all the smart lightbulbs in my house.

Only a complete reinstall and a wipe of my records could get the app going again, though she would still vastly misinterpret distances and pace. Having your run poorly tracked, or realising that it hasn't tracked at all, is incredibly dispiriting for new runners who are keen to mark their progress.

On an iPhone the headset and app were more stable, but problems persisted with the devices microphone. The trainer asks questions as you run, but can rarely hear your answers, even when youre bellowing them into the treetops and startling other joggers. [Since this review was first published, a software update improves voice recognition on Android devices].

This sadly isnt the sexy Blade Runner-esque future of exercise promised by the swish packaging and glossy presentation. The hardware is great, but the failings of the software make entrusting your workout routine to this robo-lady feel perilous rather than reassuring.

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