A team of Australian sports scientists have brought to market a patented sports headphone that challenges the athlete wearable sector.
The company is BioConnected and their device, BioConnected HR+, is the brainchild of Dr Sven Rees and his team who have created a biosensing headphone for professional and amateur runners.
The HR+ is a lightweight wireless earphone designed to collect data and provide information on a user’s heart rate, heart-rate variability, speed, pace, distance, energy expenditure and cadence. Any variances in this data is provided to the user in real-time and is designed to provide greater accuracy of training and performance data.
In a world’s first they measure this by blood flow analysis through a person’s ears.
By converging audio and fitness tracking products, a HR+ user can listen to music, receive real-time information and encouragement whilst running, and combine that with a fitness app that records and reports on all run data.
BioConnected were incorporated in November 2014 but as the company’s co-founder and chief information officer Dr Rees told Bullpen planning and development for the HR+ began years before the company’s formation.
After years of testing, designing and prototyping, the HR+ hit the market in early October.
Bullpen: How has the feedback and response been since the launch?
Dr Sven Rees: “This has been incognito mode for so long. We had early publicity with our beta launch and beta testers but it’s great to be able to get the product out there, get feedback and positive comments, and it’s also very encouraging to see that a number of people who were beta testers are paying customers.”
BP: Is it going to be the tricky thing to convince keen athletes and runners to put money down for BioConnected?
SR: “It’s a challenge but the nice thing about our wearable, we call it an invisible wearable because they’re headphones but you wouldn’t know it’s a wearable. They’re premium headphones and people quite happily outlay money for headphones at this price point, and when we compare it to what it does to the other wearables out there and the fact that it’s a product that you can live with in your everyday life.”
BP: You have tagged the technology as ‘hearables’ as opposed to wearables. Do you foresee that it is a segment that will outlast some wearable technologies?
SR: “It comes down to form factor. The form factor for the wrist works because it has the form factor of a watch and because it serves a second purpose. The thing with hearables, particularly for exercise, is that people already listen to music and you can’t ever replace the need for a set of headphones with people wanting to listen to music. In that instance, the hearable will always outlast the wrist because people still need headphones and why would they want two separate products.”
BP: My experience with wearing a wrist based wearable is I found the data not very intuitive and it was uncomfortable to wear.
SR: “This is where the problem started. My background is, I’ve got a doctorate in exercise physiology, and I was doing some research on kids and fitness, and ethics meant you can’t lift up kid’s shirts to use a chest strap to monitor heart rate. It posed the question, what else can we use? I tested every wrist based device and they were all fine for rest but awful during exercise. It’s largely because the wrist, if you think about when you exercise, it gets more movement than anywhere else on the body, so it’s just plain difficult to try and get clean data.
“In that instance, the hearables perspective is much easier because the head is nice and stable, it’s got very little noise, you’ve got constant blood supply and you get a clean pulse rate reflection. And for the form factor, you’ve got a product that people already use in their everyday lives.”
BP: How long did it take to validate and iterate the product?
SR: “A long time! We incorporated BioConnected in November 2014 but I’ve been working on it for a year and half to two years before that.
“We’ve been doing all the R&D work essentially ourselves. We are a start-up competing with the big boys in business but the validation was easy on my part because that’s what I do for a living.
“I can quite happily and confidently can say we’ve validated the chest strap for heart rate accuracy. When we do these tests we do them internally, externally and had them independently validated, and we do the testing under conditions that people will use them for high intensity exercise.”
BP: What types of people were beta testing the product? Were they professional athletes, casual athletes or a cross-section?
SR: “It’s interesting because I’ve had access to a lot of university students. For testing and validation, I had access to athletes.
“When we went to look at validating if we could actually sell this product, we learnt that our target market is the corporate athlete. We went to some different events and received a lot of feedback. We went to Martin Place, and all we did was set up a table and talked to people on the street and the response was incredible. People who had never heard of the company before got to trial the product and we were able to sell out of our beta round. We essentially had our own Kickstarter campaign on the streets of Sydney. It was also reassuring to know that what we were doing was resonating with the market.”
BP: How long ago did all this occur?
SR: “A year ago. We had products, had a beta round and we sold and delivered them to people at the start of this year. Crucially we learned a lot from those beta users and we made some modifications and this is why we have the product we have at the moment because we had this extensive round of product testing.”
BP: What changed during the beta product testing to what has been delivered to market. What aspects of the product changed?
SR: “From a software side. I love my data, I’m a bit of a nerd! But we would get feedback on what people were using, what activity they were using it for and it turns out that you can give people too much information and metrics. We then scaled it back to what people were using, what they were interested in.
“Also at the time of beta testing we didn’t have special waterproofing on the product. We always planned to deliver special waterproofing on the product by using a plasma nano-coating on our products which makes it impervious to sweat and rain, whatever weather elements that occur, that’s what we added in to the final release product.”
BP: My occasional problem with wearing headphones while running is they don’t stay in my ears, of course I’m not alone with this problem.
SR: “This is actually one of the things we’ve solved, in that I had this problem initially that I used to run with strapping tape to put the earphones in my ears because I was sick of them falling out.
“In terms of earphones staying in the ear, if it falls out or if it moves you can’t capture measurements. So as a secondary thing we have to make sure that the headphones stay in the ear no matter what the conditions are. We’ve made sure that we got them custom-made fit. We’ve actually patented our design and our locking mechanisms because it is quite different and they’re secure, they’ll stay in place no matter what type of movements you do.
“I demonstrated this to people by getting one of my former students who is a breakdancer and I got him to spin on his head, do flips and movements to demonstrate that the product actually stays in your ears. It’s a simple thing but that’s one reason why people are interested in the product.”
BP: Getting onto data, so if people build up a significant amount of data over time wouldn’t that have wider benefits such as medical diagnosis and monitoring?
SR: “We collect more biometrics than any consumer wearable, with a greater degree of accuracy. As a company we will be trying to transition towards that pre-medical space. What we collect at the moment is a little bit different from others in that we’ve got enough information on a user profile that we can give them feedback if they’re having changes in their level of fitness.”
BP: If you build up data over a number of years it seems like you can use that data with your medical professional to monitor how you exercise, how your heart’s resting?
SR: “We’re transitioning and we’re building this in the background at the moment, but one thing that we would like to solve is remote monitoring and prescription. Such as, you can connect to a coach and they monitor your program from afar.
“Having worked in elite sport, you often have sporting teams where the athletes are from all around Australia, for off-season and pre-season you have no contact with them together so the ability to prescribe things and process that information in one hub is quite valuable.”
BP: This is maybe a bit philosophical. Our technology is rapidly evolving, we collect and manage bigger amounts of data, we’re more educated in training and nutrition, we appear to even understand nutrition a lot better and we have greater access to fitness information, so why is it that people tend to lead a far more sedentary lifestyle?
SR: “That’s a very good question.
“Technology to date has not helped the everyday person become fitter and healthier, and we think we’re a solution for that everyday person to motivate them to exercise and be more active.”
BP: We are seeing so much fitness and athletes promoted.
SR: “I think we need to move away from what has been promoted from technology for health benefits. For example, the number one wearable at the moment, and you ask the everyday person on the street, is total steps. But total steps have absolutely nothing to do with changes in health and fitness, particularly when the accuracy of those devices are questionable. It doesn’t necessarily translate to something. Let’s say you’ve done 6000 to 8000 steps, the accuracy of the device doesn’t tell us too much differences, it could be that you’re moderately active, we don’t really know if that’s changing your health. If you want to know about changes in health and fitness you need to accurately measure your heart rate.
“It’s getting the right metrics, the right accuracy to provide people with data that can actually make a change in their lives.”
BP: This is a question I do ask sports industry professionals. Do you think that people are getting bombarded with too much data which means that they’re not able to separate what is the most appropriate or helpful?
SR: “There’s a transition and education that comes to it and I think this is going to be a learning process. The everyday person needs it to be presented in a way that can help them make actionable changes. It’s a difficult one to get correct and that’s why we do beta testing.
“Let’s get away from what’s been done in the past, like measuring total steps and let’s get into changes in health and fitness.”
BP: Are you looking at launching the product internationally, or is it already supplied overseas?
SR: “The plan will be to continue launching in Australia and build overseas. Australia is a very good lifting off point for getting it right. If we can get it right here we can scale it overseas.”
BP: Do you have particular markets or geographies in mind?
SR: “BioConnected talks as you know, it gives you verbal encouragement whilst exercising, therefore English-speaking countries are our first port of call.
“From there, Europe, Asia and North America. But the nice thing about us as well is we are Australian and in essence we’re exporting that Australian sports science, and Australian health and lifestyle to the world.”