ReadWriteBody is an ongoing series where ReadWrite covers networked fitness and the quantified self.
On days when I head out for a run or a workout—which is to say, most days—I strap on a heart-rate monitor. The fabric strap worn around my chest isn’t the most comfortable, but I’ve gotten used to it. There should be a better way.
There may be soon. A Canadian company, OMsignal, is coming out with a line of performance-oriented athletic clothing with built-in sensors. It starts taking orders on its website Thursday, with a basic kit including a shirt and an attached module selling for $199. (By themselves, shirts will sell for between $100 and $140.) It plans to ship the shirts this summer.
Smart Clothes For Fitness Fanatics
OMsignal CEO Stephane Marceau visited ReadWrite recently to show me the shirt. Think of your typical Under Armour compression shirt, with a slightly thicker panel around the middle of the torso. That’s where sensors are woven into the fabric, and where the module attaches with snaps.
In the placement of its sensors, the OMsignal shirt isn’t that different conceptually from a chest strap. But because it covers more body surface area, it detects more signals than just heart rate, like breathing and stress indicators. The companion app picks up and analyzes all these signals to provide detailed feedback on exactly what your body’s doing.
Technically, it’s a smart approach which may prove superior to both the familiar chest strap and newer, less proven technologies like the optical heart-rate monitors increasingly common in devices like the Mio Alpha and the Samsung Gear Fit.
When I first met Marceau in February, he had several markets in mind for OMsignal’s products: Remote care for the elderly, for example, or wellness products for office workers who need to learn how to destress. After talking to consumers, though, his team decided to target a different segment: performance-oriented athletes—the kind of people who are looking for gym clothes that give them an edge. He showed me a promo video which was something like Apple’s famous “1984” ad crossed with a Nike “Just Do It” spot.
“You’re punching Under Armour in the face,” I told Marceau, who laughed.
Fitness Versus Wellness
With this decision, OMsignal had the same quandary that a lot of wearables companies are facing: Do they try to evangelize the idea of the quantified self to a broader set of consumers who could stand to benefit from thinking more about their bodies? Or do they stick to the high end of the market, where there’s a segment of runners, cyclists, and gym rats who have a proven record of spending on fitness clothing and gadgets?
What weighed in favor of focusing on fitness, Marceau told me, was the fashion element.
“Wearables are fashion,” Marceau said. “Wearables are identity affirmation. When we did our tech trial, we realized how important [that] is. You buy a story about yourself that you want to tell yourself and others, and I don’t think this should be underplayed.”
In other words, when you buy a product like this, you’re conveying your commitment to fitness and exercise—a strategy not unlike Nike’s and Under Armour’s.
So targeting yoga jocks and weekend warriors may position OMsignal to eventually reach other, broader markets. It’s difficult to sell “wellness” products, which always carry a vague scent of the doctor’s clinic. But fitness-oriented apparel convey a sense of vibrant health. Even if it’s aspirational, it may be a better way to sell the masses on measuring their vital signs on their smartphones.
The shirts are made of a nylon-polyester blend and have silver-based threads woven in. (The silver is simultaneously conductive and antimicrobial.) OMsignal had to find specialized machines to knit them together. For now, it’s starting only with men’s shirts in small, medium, large, and extra-large, with six colors, and short-sleeve, sleeveless, and long-sleeve styles.
Will OMsignal find a place in the market alongside the fitness-apparel giants? Under Armour sells high-end versions of its compression shirts for $99.99, and Nike is similarly pricey in its performance lines. And OMsignal’s shirts do a lot more than just keep you warm or stretch with your movements.
Ultimately, its fate may be up to the people who wear it. If the buffest guys in the gym are wearing OMsignal this summer, it may have a fighting chance at merging fitness and fashion.