For athletes, Israeli ‘smart hat’ beats Apple on price, timing

The LifeBEAM baseball cap is no Apple Watch – but it does provide fitness data at a reasonable price, and it’s ready to ship now

LifeBEAM Hat (Photo credit: Courtesy)
LifeBEAM Hat (Photo credit: Courtesy)

If you’re in the market for smart health gear, you can wait another half year or so for the Apple Watch to go on sale – or you can get a “smart hat” from Israel’s LifeBEAM. Specializing in devices that let users measure heartbeat, number of calories burned, distance covered while running or cycling, and other key metrics runners and cyclists care about, the new LifeBEAM baseball cap takes the place of chest heart monitors, wristbands, pedometers, and other devices.

And at $99, it’s priced at the very bottom of new health devices, while providing much more information – a value proposition the company is confident will help it sell a lot of hats. There’s also a visor geared towards women, who seem to prefer them over baseball caps, the company says.

The LifeBEAM hat works if you’re interested in a device to keep an eye on your workouts, whether in the gym or on the jogging track. But a baseball cap is not the kind of thing you’d wear around the office – unlike the Apple Watch, which, as company CEO Tim Cook said when he introduced the device last month, will come in several editions, including a “classic” one, featuring a Rolex or Breitling “look of luxury” to it. And, of course, the Apple Watch will have a slew of non-fitness related features.

For monitoring workouts and connecting to apps that can analyze fitness data, though, the LifeBEAM hat has everything athletes need. To get the hat working, users just put it on, and the hat begins measuring heart rate, calorie consumption, steps taken, and cadence (walking rate and gait data). The information can be uploaded to smartphone apps on devices with Bluetooth compatibility (iPhones, Android and Windows devices), or to hundreds of other devices such as treadmills/elliptical machines, GPS trackers, and bike computers that use the ANT+ wireless connectivity system.

For most users, the best tech aspect of the hat is likely to be its heart monitor. LifeBEAM placed the sensors – including an optical sensor that monitors pulse — in the back of the hat, measuring the flow of blood via an LED that determines heart rate from the speed at which blood flows through the veins, using a technique called photoplethysmography (PPG), replacing the bulky and clumsy chest-strap monitors most athletes use.

In general, this type of heart rate monitoring is considered less accurate than the EKG-type sensors used by chest-strap monitors – but LifeBEAM plays that down. It’s a veteran of the aerospace industry and has developed sensor equipment for use by pilots, astronauts, and special forces, designing what is says are very advanced and accurate sensor devices and algorithms.

Now, the company said, it is bringing its “advanced technology to Earth to let you measure your own performance with the same lightweight, precision gear.” The tech was also used in the company’s first product, a bicycle helmet that has gotten positive reviews from biking enthusiasts and professional reviewers, with the consensus that the helmet’s sensing capabilities – not just for heart rate, but for calories burned, distance, and other factors – are accurate. That product – which was funded by a KickStarter campaign – went on sale in September.

LifeBEAM bike helmet (Photo credit: Courtesy)
LifeBEAM bike helmet (Photo credit: Courtesy)

The other selling point is likely to be the LifeBEAM hat’s $99 price. Most basic wrist monitors that can measure heart rate start at about $150. For $99, consumers can get a FitBit Flex, which monitors only number of steps taken and how long and far a runner, jogger, or walker progresses (the device does not measure activities such as weight lifting, Pilates, and swimming). The prices for more advanced devices — but not necessarily more favorably reviewed — creep past the $150 mark. The Apple Watch, starting at $349 — and the “luxury model” appropriate for business execs is likely to cost a lot more — is set to be at the high end of consumer-level fitness monitoring devices when it becomes available in the spring.

Because of the value it’s offering, LifeBEAM believes that many consumers will be tempted to try out the different form factor of a hat over the wrist device they have become used to. The hat – made in Israel — is in production now and will begin shipping soon, with free delivery promised in time for Christmas.

LifeBEAM said that it tested the hat with professional athletes, triathletes and iron man teams in the London Marathon 2014, Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc 2014, the 100-mile Berlin Wall Race, Ironman Cozumel and the New York City Marathon. An average athlete can use the hat or visor three or four times a week for an entire month before recharging. Both come with a micro-USB charger that can be plugged into a wall socket or computer. The hat is available in white or black, and the visor is available in one white and pink design. Both can be adjusted to fit all head sizes. They come with a carbon carrying case, modeled on the cases that fighter pilots use to transport and protect their helmets.

Announcing the Apple Watch, Cook demonstrated a range of communication and other features that the device will provide, along with its ability to play music, show off photos, and more. Obviously, the LifeBEAM hat is no Apple Watch – but according to company CEO Omri Yoffe, it doesn’t want to be. He says all LifeBEAM is doing is putting out the best fitness product it can at a price he believes will appeal to athletes, both extreme and casual, who want to keep better tabs on their health.

“Our goal is to give athletes control over their training regimen and data,” said Yoffe. “The LifeBEAM Hat and Visor are motion resistant, waterproof, washable and tested by the world’s most demanding users for any movements, intensity levels and weather conditions you can find. We want athletes to use these everywhere and send their measurements to any device or app. This is about providing choice and knowledge, so people can get the most out of training.”

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