This article titled “New Year revolutions: four gadgets for a better you” was written by Alfie Packham, Miranda Sawyer, Tess Riley and Emma Graham-Harrison, for The Observer on Sunday 1st January 2017 07.00 UTC
Oakley Radar Pace Glasses, £400
I’ve always envied people who can run properly, but being a beer slob I can only manage about two miles without dry heaving. My aim is to at least double that distance within a month.
A £400 pair of sunglasses. The Oakley Radar Pace glasses look like any sports eyewear – sleek and futuristic – but with the novel twist of a voice-activated coaching system. They are adorned with removable earphones, three microphones and a clutch of internal sensors for real-time updates on your run or bike ride. These are delivered, Siri-like, with the vocal prompt “OK, Radar”.
The sunglasses are paired with an app on which you can customise a training plan based on your fitness levels. I chose the beginner setting, opting for some extra focus on improving my endurance. There are two other programmes available – speed and maintenance.
And so my first session begins with a stilted exchange. “OK, Radar,” I say, “what’s my workout plan for today?” Radar tells me I am to do a four-minute warm-up followed by an easy 1.5-mile run. Radar doesn’t give me any specific warm-up advice, so I improvise some stretches. And then we’re off.
During each run I received regular updates on my pace, power, stride length and more. This abundance of data lends itself to a kind of gamification as you’re encouraged to log it all on the app and beat your previous record.
The glasses were comfortably light and ergonomic, with minimal sliding or shaking as I thudded along the pavement. The only notable discomfort was my self-consciousness as I ran through busy parks while breathlessly exclaiming “how long left?” like a 2016 doomsayer.
The draw here is the technology’s flexibility and responsiveness: I was caught off-guard at one point when a curt voice told me to “use shorter, quicker steps as you run”. The personalised planner is easy to use and surprisingly motivational. Whenever I missed a session, it was promptly rescheduled to a later date – no flaking out allowed. Motivation is important, I found, if you take up running in December.
Of course, the price tag will deter casual joggers like me, and the lenses aren’t available in prescription form, which seems a shame. But for the distance-running dataphiles of this world – who are the real target audience here, after all – they’ll go down well. Of the array of nerdy features to play with, my favourite was taking phone calls wirelessly from my pocket. You can also play music through the earphones and link the glasses to other devices such as heart-rate monitors or foot pods.
Given that most activity is tied to your mobile, the specs aren’t the most “wearable” of wearable technologies. But after being guilt-tripped by my coach for a couple of weeks, and once I’d become used to the relentless pain in my legs, my new routine became almost enjoyable. I even managed to crawl to my four-mile goal – without retching, I can report – and I might just continue into the new year. Alfie Packham
Roli Lightpad Block, £169.95
The goal, says my editor, is for me to create my first single. “Single!” I laugh to myself. “How out of date!” I resolve to make a track instead, perhaps one that involves loops and beats. Maybe a few squelchy acid noises. Yodelling (optional). That kind of thing. Whether I can do it is another question. Anyone who listens to music a lot understands that making music is difficult. Even if your approach is “no talent DIY” – which, of necessity, mine will be – you either need mad innocence or mad bravery to create tunes that sound good, and I haven’t been innocent or brave for many years.
A new instrument that looks like a muscle-bound drinks coaster. Meet the Roli Lightpad Block, and its companions the half-sized Loop Block and Live Block. This little system is made by the same company that invented the tech-piano Seaboard, which won many awards. I like the way the Blocks look: they’re perfectly pocketable and nice to click together. When I first get them, in packaging very similar to Apple’s (at the moment, you can only get Roli Blocks to work with iOS), my kids are excited: they think the Rolis are new phones.
Once they get over their mild disappointment, we get the Lightpad up and flashing, and connect to the free Noise app. And we start enjoying ourselves, making sounds by stroking and poking and sliding our fingers around the Lightpad. It has a series of square LED lights – think 1980s disco dancefloor – that you can play, and the Noise app, which visually mirrors the Lightpad, has an interesting collection of sounds, including Trap Drum, Old-School House Bass and Moraz Lead (Jean-Michel Jarre, essentially,).
The big deal about the Lightpad is how it responds to your touch: supposedly it can recognise how as well as where you touch it, which means you can use your fingers to express a mood. This was the USP of the Seaboard, too: the idea that you can get a piece of tech-ery to respond to you playing it with feeling. It’s a nice idea. Swirl your finger quickly around the pad for one type of sound, prod it for another. Unfortunately, for an amateur like me, this doesn’t really work. Every time I get a sound I like on the Lightpad, and try to record it as a loop, I can’t repeat it exactly. It makes me feel hamfisted, rather than piano-fingered.
The two extra blocks replicate the functions on the Noise app. You don’t really need them. And actually, as the Lightpad itself makes no sound at all, you don’t really need it either. The sound comes out of your phone. In fact, we soon discover that you can do everything the Roli Blocks offer on the Noise app. The blocks are just add-ons. Am I missing something? I don’t quite see the point of this. Especially as my iPhone screen proves to be more touch-responsive than the Lightpad.
I persevere, but keep forgetting to charge up the Lightpad. It goes back in the drawer, and we play on the Noise app instead. But that, too, becomes limited after a while. There are a lot of sound options, but only four drum tracks, oddly. Plus, the recording is really irritating. I try to record more than one sound over each other (overdubbing, get me) and the app won’t do it. And there is no way of recording anything outside the app, such as your voice, or an actual real-life instrument.
YouTube offers up a few professional musicians who appear to enjoy the Roli Blocks. And there are others, including RZA and Grimes, who have been signed up to promote Roli. I notice, though, that unless they’re playing live, the musicians often combine them with their existing studio set-up. Amateurs like me are left stabbing frustratedly at their phone, and, really, who needs a soundtrack for that? In my head, I’ve already got a sarcastic tuba player parping along. (He’s always there.)
The Roli Lightpad costs £170. If you buy everything you’re meant to (two Lightpads, plus Loops and Live), you’ll spend almost £500. Very expensive for a setup that has nice aspects – it fits into your pocket, it clicks together, it’s instinctive, it’s pretty – but is locked into Apple. You can only share your recorded musical efforts via the Noise app, not on to SoundCloud. As a musical device, the Blocks work much better for live messing about than they do as a recording device. And even then, if you were a musician, you’d probably have more fun if you combined them with something else, like a microphone. The Noise app is a laugh, though. Try that. Miranda Sawyer
TRX Home Gym, £149
I was never sure what core strength was. Then my fiance had a skateboarding accident, slipped a disc and spent months on painkillers before an enlightened GP balked at his repeat prescription and recommended core strength training instead. In support, I vowed to join him yet have failed to maintain my side of the bargain, which requires me to actually turn up to the gym, not just sign up to it. The TRX Home Gym promises to help you build your core “anywhere, anytime”. Could this be the answer?
The TRX training kit consists of two adjustable straps, joined for suspension at one end, with handles at the other – apparently simple stuff that engages multiple muscle groups as you leverage gravity and your body weight to row, lunge, lean, push and pull. I started sceptical – it’s just a couple of straps! – but took it all back by day three as my muscles started to ache.
To use the TRX at home, I envisaged needing to bolt something either side of a door frame or screw a big hook into the wall. In fact, it comes with a padded attachment that anchors it either side of a closed door and a separate strap if you want to go outside. Bar the occasional chilly trip to the balcony, I used it inside. It may be an ingenious design, but I wasn’t so sure about our door frames, which I was convinced would collapse in on me like a scene from a Buster Keaton film.
As well as videos guiding you through each exercise, the TRX app provides curated workouts spanning anything from 10 to 30 minutes (add 50% extra time if you’re a beginner), all synced to the beat of whatever gems are lurking in your iTunes account – in my case, very few as it turned out.
The TRX website promises the home gym suspension trainer “allows you to finally find the better you!”. What does that even mean? Marketing slogans like that are my only real gripes though. I’m amazed how much stronger I feel having added less than half an hour (once I got the hang of it) of exercise to my day.
The kit’s major upsides are how quick it is to assemble, how easy it is to transport and how simple it is to store. In fact, if I’m not taking it with me I just leave mine slung over the bedroom door now, ready for the morning – it’s harder to walk past than it was to ignore the gym.
There were several exercises I couldn’t do, but that gives me something to work on – I wonder what happens when you’re a pro at all of them? Hopefully it doesn’t lose its appeal at that point. The hardest thing I managed was an atomic pushup, which combines alternating pushups (your feet are hooked into the lowered TRX handles) with crunching your knees towards your chest. You’re so busy steading yourself, maintaining momentum and ensuring you can get back up that you don’t realise how much work you’re doing… until you collapse. Don’t be fooled into thinking that won’t happen to you too.
Without the app, which you can use to track your progress, I wouldn’t have had a clue what to do. Even with it, I have no doubt there’s much room for improvement. Are my feet in the right place? Do my elbows stick out? A personal trainer would be able to guide you on this; doing it on your own requires a bit of faith, alongside a few repeat watches of the instruction videos. With an increasing volume of research highlighting the importance of exercise to counteract the negative health impacts of sedentary lifestyles, though, I don’t care if I’m not always doing it exactly right. At least it beats going to the gym. Tess Riley
S+ Sleep Monitor, £129.95
So simple and so elusive – a good night’s sleep. I’ve been a bad sleeper all my life. It may even run in the family. My grandmother put together an anthology for insomniacs and used to give me tips on how to get through long, sleepless nights without panicking and making the day to come even worse.
It hasn’t been made any better by a job as a foreign correspondent, which involves constant travel, irregular and often unfriendly hours; often, I’m up at 3am for a dawn flight, working long into the night then racing home. The stories I collect and people I meet often linger in my mind long after I have finished writing. So I’m always looking out for something to help me sleep or sleep better.
The S+ uses sonar to monitor your breathing and movement and with that information calculates whether you are asleep and the quality of your sleep. It seemed a bit less dubious than the apps I’d seen friends try, though some experts suggest sleep-monitoring gadgets have trouble distinguishing the different types of sleep.
The machine is a small cube in a brushed aluminium stand, like an iPod for insomniacs. Just plug in, load up the app, key in a few bits of data (your weight, height, age), get some basic instructions (you mustn’t put a phone or a glass of water between you and the sonar, for instance) and you are ready to go. At night, you give the app a handful of details about your day, broadly covering alcohol and caffeine intake, stress levels and exercise, and then hit sleep.
The machine can play slightly new-age music in tune with your breathing to help you go sleep and has an alarm that claims to work out the optimum time to wake you up and so avoid grumpiness.
In the morning, the app calculates a “sleep score”, based on how long you were actually asleep, and the amount of time it thinks you spent in each sleep stage – light, deep and REM (rapid eye movement). Then in the day it gives you tips on how to rest more effectively or deal with tiredness.
The hypnotic lullaby function (they call it “relax to sleep”) annoyed me with its tinny sound and options such as “ethereal” and “moonlight” but I have to admit I seem to crash into sleep when I put it on.
The alarm was much nicer to wake up to than the usual iPhone setting and I did feel a bit less exhausted and groggy in the mornings when I used it.
The sleep tracking may be unscientific but I felt it gave me an interesting insight into my rest (or lack of it). After one night when I got eight hours’ sleep and still woke up feeling exhausted, it suggested I mostly got light sleep, none of the deep or REM rest needed to make up a good night. That made sense and somehow I felt a bit less bad about being tired.
The tips, which I had expected to be the most helpful thing about the app, were often irritating, patronising or useless. “Try to keep regular hours” is exactly the type of pointless (for me) generic advice I had expected to avoid.
They have so much data, but their algorithms apparently ignore pretty basic variables.
“Well done!” it told me one morning. “The amount of times you woke during the night is down!” That may have been true, but didn’t really seem a very helpful reflection on a night’s sleep that began in the early hours of the morning after a boozy wedding and didn’t last more than three hours.
Overall, though, it helped my sleep. Knowing I’d get a readout in the morning felt a bit like having someone around to remind me to go to bed, I understood how I felt a little better and the alarm and digital lullaby worked quite well. At £130 though, those seem like quite pricey improvements. Emma Graham-Harrison
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