This shirt just started tracking my heart and breathing rate

My heart is moving at 52 beats a minute and my lungs are cycling though 17 inhales and exhales per minute as I write this post. Earlier today during a treadmill run, the picture was completely different: A peak of 171 beats and 42 breath cycles a minute.

I’m not getting this data from a strap, band or a watch. It’s actually coming from a shirt.

omsignal shirt front

I’ve been testing an OMSignal fitness shirt — biometric smartwear, as Stéphane Marceau, the CEO of OMsignal calls it — and it’s ingenious. Instead of cramming sensors into gadgets, the OMSignal uses textiles to capture activity, which also includes steps and extrapolated calorie burn. Inside this heavy-duty compression shirt are conductive fibers that transmit biometric signals to a small box attached to the shirt.

omsignal inside sensor fibers

The Little Black Box, as it’s called, takes data from the shirt and wirelessly sends it to a corresponding [company]Apple[/company] iPhone app over Bluetooth. The box also contains an accelerometer and gyroscope to give a fuller picture of your activity, so not all of your data comes directly from the shirt. But it’s amazing to me that you can actually get any activity from a wearable that’s nice to wear — either when working out or during the day under another shirt — and in the form of something universal: Clothing, in this case.

The OMSignal app, which just launched on the iTunes App Store Monday, is well-designed, too. On the main screen you can see your real-time heart and breathing rate; a swipe from the right will show your total calories and steps taken as well. The app has a four-minute fitness test included, taking your heart rate up to 140 beats a minute and then measuring how quickly your rate decreases after ceasing activity.

om signal app heart zones

At any time, you can tap the Fitness button in an app to capture workout data. I did this for a treadmill run and found that the software can even be used for targeted fitness zone data — helpful for specific training in any aerobic sport. You can configure in the app how long you want to be in each heart rate zone before a workout as well.

The software provides workout-specific data as well as lifestyle reports if you want all-day tracking. I’d like to see the app data eventually work with other apps; maybe I could pair the shirt with my running apps, for example, and tie GPS data in with my health tracking.

OMSignal shirt

As far as the shirt itself, the review unit I borrowed from the company is meant for general fitness and comprised of a high-compression material. I have similar running shirts, but none of them compress as much as this one. I find that to be a good thing for two reasons: The shirt feels very heavy-duty, high quality and substantial to me, plus it has to maintain good skin contact to effectively measure your activity.

The shirt can be washed like any other in a washing machine, even though it has some smarts to it. You’ll have to remove the The Little Black Box since there are electronics housed inside, but for lack of a better word: It’s a snap to unsnap it. After you’ve washed the OMSignal shirt, you just re-attach the box before your next workout. When I was working out or running, the box never got in my way; it’s relatively thin, tapered and snaps to the left side of your chest on the shirt.

omsignal black box and snaps

The box itself has a rechargeable battery and a microUSB charging port; the shirt comes with a cable for charging. I haven’t had a chance to do extensive battery tests but I didn’t see a quick drain during my testing. It’s likely you could work out for a few hours on a single charge. In fact, OMSignal worked with Ralph Lauren to create a smart shirt worn by the ball boys and a few tennis players in the U.S. Open this year, and tennis matches typically aren’t short.

So how much does it cost to get a smart wearable that’s actually comfortable to wear and looks like a normal piece of clothing? A starter kit with compression shirt, charging cable and box costs $199.99 direct from the company.

Once you have the box, though, you can add more sensing shirts for as little as $79.99 since they uses the same snap mechanism. It sounds steep but I’ve actually bought “dumb” compression running shirts for $50 or more. And I’ve spent even more money on health tracking gadgets that are bulky and far from fashionable, so much so that I hesitate to wear them. A shirt, however, is just that: A shirt. I have to wear one anyway, so why not wear one that has more value?

omsignal shirt back

As a result of the cost, how well the shirt works and the fact that it actually is a shirt, I think the company is on to something here. Maybe we should look to the past for the future of wearable health trackers and add smarts to things we already wear instead of trying to design the next device for a wrist.

Indeed that very thought came across from Marceau, speaking on stage at our Gigaom Roadmap event last week. If you missed that discussion, I’ve embedded it here so you can listen to his thoughts directly. I suspect this is just the beginning for smart clothing from Marceau and his team: Once you have the smarts part of it figured out, the idea can be applied to all sorts of items you’d wear on a daily basis.

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