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This Rock in My Bra Told Me I Am Too Distracted

As I write this, Spire's home screen tells me I was just calm for four minutes.

Lauren Goode

Can a piece of wearable technology know when you’re stressed — and actually help you calm down?

That’s the aim of Spire, the new thingamajig I’ve been wearing this week. (I am often wearing pieces of technology on my body these days.)

Spire is a small, clip-on device that measures your breathing patterns. Based on those patterns, it interprets whether you’re calm, tense or focused. It acts like a “regular” activity tracker, too: It knows when you’re up and moving. Then it sends all of that data, via Bluetooth, to a compatible iPhone app.

Lauren Goode

Spire just started shipping, and costs $150. It was created by Jonathan Palley and Neema Moraveji. Palley is also CEO of the company; Moraveji is a Stanford PhD who launched the university’s Calming Technology Lab, where Spire was developed. (Yes, there is a Stanford lab devoted to technology that will save us from the distracting perils of technology; Moraveji is currently on leave from his role as director of the lab.)

Considering the number of wearables out there that track activity levels, the notion of a product devoted to the state of mind is rather appealing. My colleagues have reviewed similar devices, with the appropriate amount of skepticism.

While wearing the Spire this week, I discovered some interesting behavioral patterns. Apparently, I am calm when I’m driving. Who knew. Also, I am not the laser-focused machine I envision myself to be throughout the workday. I have yet to fulfill my daily quota for focus in the Spire app. (Can I blame technology?)

But despite that info — and the fact that I like the guided breathing exercises in the Spire app — I can’t fully recommend the Spire, at least not yet. It was buggy for me. One was a small quirk around battery levels. The other was a persistent connectivity issue between the Spire and the app. The company says this issue is affecting just a limited number of users, but this made me feel the opposite of calm.

Lauren Goode

The Spire, in some ways, is like a Fitbit for stress. It looks and feels like a gray stone with a metal clip fastened to it. You attach the Spire either to front or side of your bra, or to your waistband. The stone-like side of the Spire has to be flat against your torso area.

I opted to fasten it to my bra. Sometimes I completely forgot it was there. Other times, it felt like … well, like there was a rock in my bra. It’s also pretty difficult to pull the device off. I didn’t wear it to bed, because the Spire is not really designed to wear while sleeping.

According to Palley and Moraveji, the sensor-filled Spire smartly interprets the wearer’s state of mind based on the consistency and speed of her breaths. So if my breathing slowed, that meant I was calm. If my breathing sped up and was erratic, that signaled that I was tense or stressed. And if my breathing sped up but was consistent, that meant I was focused.

All of this data is then shared to the Spire app when you open it on your iPhone. When you first sign up in the Spire app, it prompts you to set daily goals around Calm, Focus and Activity. For all of these categories I set my goals to “Moderate.”

Lauren Goode

The app is comprised of three main sections, not including settings: Home, Progress and Boosts. The home screen of the app shows real-time breathing data, with a cloudy circle that gentle pulses along with your breath. This screen also shows your recent “streaks” of activity. For example, as I write this, the home screen tells me I was just calm for four minutes. Tapping on those streaks will show even more data, such as breaths per minute.

The Progress tool shows a weekly calendar and, below that, an interactive, three-leaf graphic that breaks down your progress for each day.

This is where I started to notice at least a few patterns. For one, I’m calmer than I thought. I experienced calm streaks when I was in the car — at least when I wasn’t driving in bad weather. But I am not focused. At all. Last Monday, I hit approximately zero percent of my focus goal. On Wednesday, I hit just 23 percent.

According to Spire, I was most focused last Tuesday, a day when I was productive at work but also went to a holiday event that night. Interestingly, that was also the day when I hit 72 percent of my activity goal (10,000 steps) and 77 percent of my calm goal (60 minutes per day), so maybe for me there is an unscientific correlation between high activity levels and intense focus and calm.

Yellow is for activity, green represents calm and blue is for focus. I am not focused.
Yellow is for activity, green represents calm and blue is for focus. I am not focused.

Within the app there are Boosts you can try as a short-term solution. If you’re feeling tense, for example, the Spire will suggest a Calm Boost. Or you can try a Focus Boost before you start digging into some work. These are short, audio-guided breathing exercises that will help you adjust your state of mind. While I rather like the Boosts, the irony of staring at an iPhone screen while launching into a deep meditative state does not escape me.

But as I mentioned above, my Spire wasn’t working perfectly. There’s a small bug around battery-life display. The Spire comes with a nifty inductive-charging tray — plop the Spire onto the tray, and it automatically begins charging — but even after I left it on the tray for several hours, the Spire app said the device was only around 85 percent charged. The company said that it was fully charged, but that the problem is with the charging indicator. So far, the Spire is still kicking after six days.

Then there was the wireless connectivity issue. Almost every time I opened the app, it would tell me that my Spire was disconnected, and it would take a few minutes to reconnect. The connectivity problem also resulted in some lost data.

On Friday I was determined to have a calm, focused day. I wore the Spire to yoga in the morning, and “ommmmed” for an hour. I was focused on writing and shooting video that day — although, I did take my Spire off for a couple hours. Then I wore it again all night, to a comedy show and dinner with friends. I laughed my ass off. Also, my iPhone’s battery was dying, so I wasn’t constantly pulling it out to check it.

Surely all of this is good for one’s state of mind! I was practically gaming the Spire system! But the Spire app that day showed minimal results across activity, focus and calm. The company, after looking into my data, said that the Spire only registered data for half the day on Friday. So my intentional ommming and focusing and laughing was for naught.

The company says that these problems are limited to a small set of early users, and plans to release both software and firmware updates for these problems soon.

I want to like the Spire. I want this smooth device that I’m carrying around in my bra like a lucky pebble to unlock the magical powers of focus for me. Maybe it still will. But it has some issues that likely should have been resolved before it started shipping.

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