Why I’m both skeptical and optimistic about The Dash heart-rate monitoring music headphones

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It’s funny, as a general rule, I don’t like writing about Kickstarter projects where I haven’t seen or touched the product hands-on.  I think that introduces too much risk where people assume that because I write about it, it’s a good product (even when I clearly don’t like the product).

Nonetheless, I’ve received so many e-mails, tweets and messenger pigeons over the last few days around one Kickstarter project in particular, that despite some tweets from me about it, the questions keep on coming.  The project is The Dash, which are tiny waterproofed headphones that not only play music via Bluetooth (and 4GB of internal storage), but also measures your heart rate as well as even pace and cadence while running – all without a mobile phone being present.  Boiled down, the core features advertised are as follows:

– Tracking of heart rate data via optical sensor in your ear
– Tracking/recording of fitness data (pace, cadence, steps)
– Music storage and playback

My skepticism is of course not tied to the music portion – that’s relatively straight forward (well, mostly).  Obviously, how well you can hear traffic around you and areas such as passive noise reduction will need attention in a review – but those are largely well charted territory for companies today.

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Rather, it’s tied to the heart rate and activity monitoring portions.  That’s the piece that’s a bit messier.  And, the piece that’s completely un-charted.  Many big-name companies in the past have attempted to measure heart rate via ears (such as Motorola), but have come up short. There’s been renewed focus on it in the past few months (as I previewed at CES), but none have put together a product (actually on the market) as diverse and complex as this.

Looking at the fitness side, we’ve got the following pieces (from their site):

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You’ll notice that a few of them require the smart phone to operate, but the vast majority are in the unit itself and self-sustaining.

Looking at the left side, we’ve got the heart rate component – and this is the piece that I believe introduces the most risk.  I spent the better part of 30 minutes talking with the founder and owner – Nikolaj Hviid – about where the components stood as of today.

The Dash will be using optical sensors to measure heart rate within your ears. It’s sorta like the Mio Alpha and Mio Link, and the Adidas Smart Run GPS.  The Dash will leverage red LED’s that are currently used in medical systems, and measure the light being emitted about 55-65 times per second.

Once that’s done, like other systems, they have to remove the noise through what’s called a low-pass filter.  Basically optical systems have historically been designed for a medical environment where you’re sitting still in front of a doctor/nurse.  Introducing running/swimming/jumping and all sorts of other crazy random movements and impacts causes an immense amount of ‘noise’ into the readings.  Thus, it has to be removed.

The team plans to use the accelerometer located in the unit to correlate impact against the optical sensor noise to attempt to clean up the data.  Finally, when it comes to HRV, in talking with them it’s officially more of an estimation.  Like other units on the market, optical can’t actually accurately get HRV information by itself.  The folks behind Dash believe they have a way to bridge that gap.  Whether or not said way is accurate remains to be seen.

All of this is also transmitted via both Bluetooth Smart and concurrently legacy Bluetooth as the standard heart rate device profiles – so it’ll pair up with devices that support that.  It won’t support ANT+, as the company said it would draw too much power.

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Next, the activity monitoring portions.  Within the unit itself they’re going to track cadence, steps and pace (running), as well as areas for others spots such as airtime and G-Force.  Cadence is fairly straight forward – it’s kinda the easy one.  You hit the ground and an impact is sustained and then measured.  Straight forward stuff.  Steps is the same (you simply count cadence).  Pace is where things get tricky.

In talking with with them, they’ll be initially calibrating the pace portion via the GPS on your phone.  So you’ll go out for a run with the phone and the unit and the two will talk and correlate the data, ultimately combining the vertical bounce with the cadence and cross-referencing it with different pace ranges.  Generally speaking it’s similar to what other companies are working on, such as the Wahoo TICKR straps.  Once you’ve calibrated it, it’ll then allow you to run without the phone and still get pace.

It’ll be interesting to see how the accuracy shakes out on both of those efforts.  From my testing of pace calculations with watches without GPS (and without a footpod), things are still pretty rough in this area.

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So – with all that, why am I a bit skeptical on the project as a whole?  Well, the timelines in my opinion aren’t realistic.  As it stands today, they have two different hardware prototypes.

The first is one prototype with a full software stack running on it, but with ‘oversized’ development hardware.  Basically, larger hardware that most definitely won’t fit in your ear (seen below on the development board connected with wires).  The second prototype they have is of the physical hardware, with all the things that fit in your ear – but with no software on it yet.  The combination of the two doesn’t come for a bit longer until some new chips arrive later this spring, allowing them to load the software on the hardware.

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Right now, they’re targeting to get the first alpha prototypes in June – which will be the first opportunity they’re able to test everything on a human in all the environmental conditions from sunny days to snowy days to 1-meter underwater.  It’s also the same time they’ll be doing testing of the heart rate algorithms (again, on a human) in a sports environment.  And that assumes there’s no delays between now and then.

Immediately thereafter in July, they plan to do the beta prototypes and first trial runs of the units.  That’s effectively only a month after receiving their alpha prototypes.  The logistics alone involved in testing those units will take more time than I believe they’ve allocated, let alone the process of getting the feedback incorporated back into them.  Given they aren’t at the point of having these algorithms working on a human with the units (today), it means there is going to be a ton of ground to cover in a very short timeframe.

Then, there’s the white elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about: It’s summer….and more importantly, summer vacations in Europe.  Almost their entire team is based in Europe – and having lived in Europe now one quickly realizes how much of the business world shuts down for July and August.  We’ve seen the impact of that on other Kickstarter technology projects.  While the team may promise to work through it, I just don’t see that being realistic for all staff members – it’s going to have some tangible impact on a schedule that’s already very tight.

Remember, there still is work to be done on the tracking pieces for fitness and sport, as well as whatever is there on the music side.  And they’ve got two apps to develop – iOS and Android.

Finally, we get to September for another trial run and then the first units of 1,000 pieces in October (that’s production).

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Having seen many products – both from crowd-funded startups as well major corporations, these timelines are just not realistic.  Keep in mind that Bragi (the company behind The Dash) hasn’t taken on any external investment funds/partners, which means its ability to go to Mom/Dad and ask for an extra million dollars to add more resources (human or otherwise) is highly limited.  Many people don’t realize that most Kickstarter-like technology projects have a vast amount of 3rd party funding beyond what Kickstarter is raising.  As one company recently told me: “The Kickstarter funds are just a drop in the bucket.”

Looking at the timelines, I think that a Spring 2015 timeframe (March-May 2015) is probably the most realistic guess of actual delivery – assuming no major issues.  I don’t see any major single issue for Dash, but rather a lot of little issues that will take more time to sort out than they realize.  Project schedule death by a thousand cuts essentially.

That said – I am excited about the potential for the product.  I’m excited about any sports/fitness and health product that bridges into new product areas and brings consumers cool new functionality.  I have ‘backed’ the project – merely because I’m curious how it will turn out.  But I definitely don’t expect to see it before the end of the year.

With that – thanks for reading, and have a great weekend!

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38 Comments

  1. Chuck

    I too looked at the time lines and had second thoughts. The deal breaker for me is the claim of 1m water resistance AND charging via micro usb. One of the best devices I've ever used (after a custom firmware) was the Motoactv. However I killed four of them with sweat thanks to the silly micro usb charging port. Where are all the induction charged devices? There's no need for the little copper leads or USB anymore.

    Reply
    • Chuck replied

      Also if this device was to use the TI WiLink system on chip they would get bluetooth 4.0 AND ant+ from one chip.

      Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      They're using CSR because they said the power profile going to the TI chipset would reduce it by half (down to roughly 1.5 hours), and that it didn't offer the audio quality that the CSR chip does.

      Whether or not that's accurate/true, I don't have any way to confirm. Just the messenger there...

      Reply
    • Idefix replied

      the micro usb is on the carrying case not the Dash. the Dash has 4 pins to connect to the case. the dash is filled with silicone to make it watertight.
      they said induction charging was considered but too slow. probably a combo of too slow or too big.

      idefix, also just a messenger ;)

      Reply
    • Charles Xavier replied

      Unless its offered as a addon *TO* MicroUSB induction charging would be the last thing i want.

      Having to have another proprietary charger to carry around with me (essentially tied to my hip) is a incredible PITA.

      Reply
  2. Koen

    I'm really stunned by the usage of in-earplugs by sporters. I'm only using those old-fashioned earbuds that doesn't creates a vacuum that is called 'my head'. This has led to getting that smack/boom! effect every step I took, besides I can't find these to be very safe.

    I don't know if you've already mentioned this, but I find this a good kickstarter-product: link to kickstarter.com. It's in production and ready to order, though paying 170 euros for a set(!) of lights is way too expensive.

    Reply
  3. Idefix

    On the audio side of things the Dash can switch from passive closed to active open. Meaning it is a passive isolating headphone that can actively mix in surrounding noise/sound if you wish. So you can listen to music on a plane without hearing much engine noise or you can wear them on a bike in traffic listening to music while still hearing the traffic sounds around you.

    idefix, still just a messenger ;)

    Reply
  4. Paul S

    Nice idea, but the wrong place. I must not be the only one who won't wear headphones out on the road. About the only time I'll wear them exercising is when I'm skiing laps in the local park. And in ear? No thanks.

    But on the other hand, I'd be very interested in something that continuously took as many vitals as possible non invasively.

    Reply
  5. Mike B

    There is a descent ear phone that measures heart rate and more the Iriver ON.

    link to iriverinc.com

    Unfortuatnely the apps that support it stink and it costs $200.

    Mike

    Reply
    • Naomi replied

      I was going to ask about these! Thanks for the info about the apps, good to know.

      Reply
  6. Josh Parks

    Thanks for the comments Koen - I tend to agree with you. I went for a run once with nice headphones and came back in need of replacing them, never again! (I also really liked your link too!)

    Now I wear pretty good $6 basic phones that are just north of disposable (though they seem more durable than others I've tried).

    I'm thinking that this is one of those tools that Ray reviews more for the general athlete rather than the more than serious data junkies out there. After all, who's going to ditch their Garmin 620 for this? Those folks don't own a nice Garmin, because they're already happy with their Track-my-run type app.

    Horses for courses...

    Reply
  7. Mack

    This is one of the reasons that I both love and hate Kickstarter. I love the idea of helping to fund interesting projects like this with the possibility of getting something tangible out of it. I hate the fact what I get out of it will likely be a not-quite finished product (albeit at a slightly reduced price). Personally, I'd rather get a coupon for a discount on a fully realized retail unit.

    The problem that I have with the Dash in particular is that there is no mention of use with a GPS watch. Even if the data it collects is good, audible feedback for general workout data on-the-fly sucks. Try saying the elapsed time, distance, speed, and heart rate out loud and see how long it takes. Unless they have a novel way to hear a specific piece of data you'll have to hear the whole thing every time. It's a pain.

    Reply
  8. Marc Taylor

    Great idea, hope they can make it work

    Reply
  9. Mike

    I wonder what the battery life will be. that can really sink a product.

    Reply
  10. Frank Young

    The interesting thing about all of this to me is the integration with phone based GPS. Why aren't the apps related to Fitbit, Jawbone and Basis taking advantage of this? Runkeeper has been doing it for years. Polar is rumored to be doing it with Flow but it seems that might cannibalize sales of their wrist based GPS products like the V800.

    Reply
    • Yann Vernier replied

      Polar have been selling heart rate monitors for use with phones for many years. I personally use a Polar Wearlink Bluetooth model with Sportstracklive on Android; some more recent Polar watches even use the Bluetooth Smart (low energy) version of the strap. IIRC the first bluetooth model was sold in a Nokia bundle at first.

      Reply
  11. Myria

    I wish I could be optimistic on this one, but even setting the timeline issues aside -- and at this point pretty much everyone should be aware that Crowdfunding project timelines should never be taken seriously -- I feel like they're likely *vastly* over-promising compared to what they're ultimately going to deliver.

    Vastly.

    They may be able to overcome some of the problems others have run into trying to accomplish some of these goals, but overcome all of them simultaneously whilst maintaining a tiny form factor and multiple conflicting functions?

    Just don't see it.

    Not just trying to do too much, but trying to do too much that has been shown to be problematic before in a form factor that is itself problematic.

    Reply
  12. I would need to see these in the flesh before putting that kind of money down. Nice concept though.
    http://www.velovitaveritas.com

    Reply
  13. Idefix
    Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      Cool stuff, especially since they dive much more into the electrical/chipset engineering side. In many ways, these two posts compliment each other. They give a really solid deep insight there, whereas I'm more focused on the realities of the fitness portions. Thanks for sharing!

      Reply
  14. Charles Xavier

    In addition to ANT+ and probably more importantly what they are missing and what would have made this perfect is FM radio with RDS *and* FM Transmitter.

    Being able to use the RDS stream to send that back to a iPhone would give you a always on singlecast connection for news, weather, forecast information and other useful alerts. Then being able to send that information BACK to the mobile device makes that 10x more powerful.

    iPhone users want to cut the cord with cellular companies. This would have empowered them to take one step closer to doing that.

    Instead its just another bluetooth headset on steroids. Not a true AIO.

    Reply
  15. Everyday Fella

    You can buy a biometric sports Bluetooth headset today -- the iriverON. It uses sensor technology by a startup named Valencell. I own one, and it's quite impressively accurate. There is a neckpiece on this one which is different than most Bluetooth headsets, but the neck controls are nice. Have you tried it?

    LG, Intel, and Blaupunkt have announced that they will be launching products with this same tech. Have you tried any of these products? (Might be harder to get hold of since I do not think they've launched yet.) I'm not certain if Dash is using Valencell's stuff as well, but if not, I suspect they will at some point in order to not be blocked by Valencell's patents. Also, the Valencell guys talk about how getting this stuff to work accurately during running (and on multiple ears) took thousands and thousands of datasets to figure out.

    At one point there was a Hong Kong company with in-ear (ear canal) technology, and I think they licensed it to Motorola, but I presume their tech must have not worked well since Motorola halted production without shipping any units. Did you ever try this one out?

    Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      Yup, I've played with the iRiver unit a bit as well as the native Valencell stuff, and spent quite a bit of time talking to them.

      As for LG/Intel/etc, they were only on display at CES. And even Intel pulled their units by 11AM the first day (just an hour after they put them out).

      Thus, in many ways, with the exception of iRiver, everyone else is solidily in the camp of 'still need to prove it'. With Motorola, they had prototype units, but never scaled to production due to accuracy issues they were seeing (from my understanding). Looking at the iRiver and the Dash, the significant differences are not just the size, but also the sheer quantity of things that Dash believes they can accomplish in addition to just monitoring HR. I believe they'll get there - but I don't believe they'll do it in the timeframes they speculate.

      Reply
  16. Stephen

    Apple have just received a patent for similar functionality...
    link to appleinsider.com

    Reply
    • Everyday Fella replied

      Looks like this patent is limited to monitoring biometric and activity information and identifying actions associated with them to replicate those actions on a portable communication device. That is actually a very narrow patent. I don't think Dash is doing this, are they claiming so?

      Reply
  17. RhoBot

    I was a little skeptical of them saying "ANT+ would consume too much power" as ANT+ is lower power than BLE, but it's probably due to the fact that they'd have to switch to a TI chipset which at the moment isn't as low power as the CSR chipset.

    Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      Correct, it was in reference to switching from the CSR to TI chipset (or, Nordic).

      Reply
    • Stephen replied

      Yes, I was also surprised to hear they were not using ANT+ with it's ultra-low power. I went out to dinner here in Munich with one of the technical developers and he confirmed it was also for this reason, that they are using BLE. Hmmm, is ANT listening? It might not take a Google or Apple throwing their weight behind BLE to squash ANT+ (BetaMax vs VHS!).

      The time line also doesn't take into account the Oktoberfest in September and all the drinking that will be done!!

      Reply
  18. I wonder about claimed battery capacity of 100mAh. It seems to be almost impossible to place such a battery in their tiny package.

    Reply
  19. PWA

    This does seem to be a potentially very good product, for which I would likely obtain a set for multiple reasons, all of which Bragi covered in their website.

    My only question/concern(complaint?) is:
    "The USB connection. Bragi is using BT v4 but staying behind w/USB v2 - why didn't they go to USB v3 for the faster data transfer speeds that 'everyone' wants or would like to have? Is there some kind of patent/license cost overhead or something preventing them from doing so?"

    Reply
  20. johnny

    Ahh, more technological snake oil. No way this company will deliver a reliable product with that level of integration under those harsh environments. Even in 2015. I hope those kickstarters feel good about making those donations because they won't be getting anything close to what Bragi is claiming.

    Reply
  21. pdsdownunder

    Seriously…would just like a pair of good quality noise cancelling in ear wireless headphones (I fly a lot). Don’t need the rest, why not aim slightly lower and deliver at least that…. and then progress up from there.

    Reply
  22. Skeptic

    There is now a working prototype of the Dash that performs as expected. Looks like all you naysayers were wrong.

    Reply
    • DC Rainmaker replied

      Yup, not exactly.

      First, they've just got all the parts to fit in your ear. But they haven't shown that it actually works. Seriously, it's 'easy' to jam all stuff in your ear if it doesn't yet work and be accurate.

      Second, they've already delayed the project - and that was before the first prototypes were done this week, which was supposed to be back in June and handed off to beta folks then.

      Again, I really want them to succeed - I think it's great. But I also see them as promising the world in a timeline they can't deliver. If I'm wrong about the first point above, then they would have no problem showing me a functional demo. It's only a few hour train ride/45 minute flight. I'd be happy to go over and demo it and post about it. The CEO has my cell number...

      Reply

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