LifeBEAM Cycling Helmet Review
LifeBEAM's latest cycling helmet not only reads your heart rate from your forehead -- it's also both BLE and ANT+ compatible, meaning it will wirelessly pair with a huge variety of bike computers, fitness watches, and smartphones running your favorite cycling apps.
November 17, 2014
How I obtained my LifeBEAM Cycling Helmet
I always like to start out by letting you know how I obtained the fitness device in my review. In this case, LifeBEAM sent me a helmet to try out. As always, my priority is in providing my honest opinion, including what I think is great and what I don't like, no matter how I obtain a fitness tracker or similar device. This review is no exception, and with that in mind, please read on to hear what I thought of the LifeBEAM Helmet!
A Bicycle Helmet with Brains
The LifeBEAM helmet differs from a normal helmet in that an optical heart rate sensor is embedded in the hypoallergenic antibacterial headband, and a "brain" in the back of the helmet serves as power source, ANT+/BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy) transmitter, and data cruncher. The front-mounted sensor lightly contacts your forehead when you don the helmet and begins recording your heart rate when you turn the helmet on via the button near the back of the helmet.
It pairs quickly with BLE and ANT+ devices, allowing you to view your realtime heart rate and calories burned via a compatible bike computer, smartphone app, or sports watch. The optical sensor does not bring any metal into contact with your forehead -- an important consideration for those of us with allergic reactions to nickel.
For the helmet's sensor to work, it must be in contact with the skin of your forehead. That means that if you want heart rate data, you can't wear a skullcap/hat/sweatband or other head-warmer under your helmet if it comes between your forehead and the optical sensor.
This is not the company's first foray into bio-sensing tech. They started off making technology to detect vital signs of astronauts, pilots, and special forces. While continuing in that sphere, they've also expanded to provide their in-house technology to consumers via the LifeBEAM helmet (of which the BLE/ANT+ version is their second generation version of the product). In addition to the cycling helmet, LifeBEAM also offers a bio-sensing running hat and a similar visor. Both track heart rate, calories burned, and cadence/steps for those times when you're not in the saddle.
The LifeBEAM helmet is spec'ed to read heart rate values between 30 BPM and 220BPM. This should be sufficient for most athletes and humans in general. I tried as hard as I could to test that upper limit, but I don't think it's physiologically possible for me. I also did my best to relax and test the lower bound, but again, not physically possible. I've never seen my heart rate dip below 37 ... and that was in the depths of sleep as my Basis watch sampled my resting heart rate. I can say that for all the ranges of heart rates I subjected it to (appx mid 50's to 158 BPM), it functioned solidly.
LifeBEAM Helmet Sizing and Weight
The helmet comes in two sizes, medium (50 cm - 56 cm) and large (57 cm - 70cm). My head circumference measured somewhere between 21.2 in and 21.25 in (~53.85 cm - 53.98 cm), placing me "roundly" in the medium size range (har har har). The medium fit like a charm once I adjusted it via the chin straps and the "tightening knob" on the back of the helmet.
However, no matter how I wore the helmet, I ended up with a small rectangular indentation on my forehead from the heart rate sensor. Worried that maybe this was because I was wearing the helmet too tightly, I even sat at my kitchen table with it on as loosely as possible for half an hour, unstrapped and adjusted to the biggest setting, and it still left a mark. Still, although the sensor leaves a mark, I cannot feel it pressing against my forehead. The helmet is as comfortable as any helmet, and much more comfortable than a chest strap heart rate monitor!
My normal "dumb" helmet also leaves an indentation on my forehead after a ride, but the small rectangle that the LifeBEAM leaves is more noticeable, if only because of its geometric shape. For that reason, it seems worth mentioning; I wouldn't want to commute to work with the helmet right before an important meeting, unless I had at least 30 to 90 minutes for the impression to fade. However, I would want to wear it any time I was doing a training ride, or even for commuting if I had a job where the state of my forehead didn't matter.
The weight of the medium LifeBEAM helmet as stated in the manual is 280 grams and the electronic "brain" of the helmet weighs an additional 40 grams for a total weight of 320 grams. I weighed the helmet on my kitchen scale, and it even came in a bit under that value, at 305 grams.
For reference, my normal "dumb" helmet weighs 290 grams. While the LifeBEAM helmet is slightly heavier than my dumb helmet, the delta is so small that I couldn't feel a difference. If you're a serious competitive cyclist who frets over every gram, you could come out equal or better-off in terms of weight if, by wearing the LifeBEAM helmet, you can stop wearing a weighty chest strap heart rate monitor.
Operating temps for the helmet are 23F to 113F (-5C to 45C). It's also safe for wearing in the rain (just don't jump in the water with it) and muddy riding conditions, and will still work on those hot days when you sweat like a waterfall.
Battery and charging
Pairing and syncing are a breeze
There was no drama in setting up the LifeBEAM helmet with a compatible device. I simply turned it on, then opened the app I wanted to pair it with, went to the app's "Settings" area and hit "pair heart rate device." The data started showing up immediately.
I tried pairing with a few different apps (all iOS), and each time went smoothly. Some apps were even clever enough to announce "pair LifeBEAM heart rate helmet" in the settings menu where I was pairing the device. To my delight, I was wearing the helmet and seeing live data within minutes of taking the helmet out of the box.
Why ANT+ AND BLE?
Being able to pair with either ANT+ or BLE devices in a single helmet opens up more connectivity options. It means that if your favorite ANT+ watch dies, you can train with your iPhone app until you replace your watch. And when you do replace it, you aren't restricted to ANT+ devices; you're free to consider one of the new BLE-enabled models. Or, if you already have more than one device with more than one connection mode, it allows you to swap between them as desired in order to leverage their unique training features across rides. It just gives you more flexibility overall to pair with a wider variety of devices without being married to one technology or one device.
Device & app compatabiliy: works with a ton of 'em
Compatible ANT+ Devices
As mentioned before, the LifeBEAM helmet pairs with a huge range of ANT+ cycling gear. To help you determine wether your ANT+ fitness device will pair, take a look at this page: http://www.thisisant.com/directory/smart-helmet/
Compatible BLE Devices
If your Android or iOS smartphone is Bluetooth Low Energy enabled (the two previous links take you to LifeBEAM support page to help you determine if that's the case), then it should be able to pair with the LifeBEAM helmet. It's rare for fitness watches/multi-sport watches to connect via Bluetooth, but some new ones do have this feature (like the Polar V800) and these should be able to pair with the helmet as long as they have the capability to display heart rate data on screen.
Compatible Apps (and my thoughts on the most common iOS apps)
The LifeBEAM Cycling Helmet will also pair with a variety of Android and iOS apps. The LifeBEAM support page lists some of the most common iOS and Android apps that can integrate the helmet's data.
I tried all of the most common iOS apps listed on the LifeBEAM support page. Of the apps I tested, I preferred the Polar Beat app the most. Not only was the heart rate data prominently displayed and updated on a live chart with superior graphics and usability, it was also free. In contrast, the Runtastic Road Bike app requires you to upgrade to a paid account to see your heart rate data. The Map My Ride app let me view my heart rate data for free during the workout, but had an interface that I strongly disliked, poor native privacy settings, and a paywall: to see the chart of my heart rate data after the workout I would have to upgrade to the paid version.
Luckily, I thought the Polar Beat app was awesome. I'd highly recommend it for use with the LifeBEAM helmet. And remember that other apps that will import heart rate data should work. So, if other users out there find great apps out there for importing heart rate data, please send recommendations my way!
Reaction to Data Collection
I mostly used the helmet on bike rides and found the heart rate data to be excellent. However, I also ran around the house for quite a few minutes and did a bunch of jumping jacks on the evening that it arrived. (It was too late to go for a ride, but I was eager to give it a whirl at a range of heart rates!) Even when jumping around, the helmet didn't have trouble reading my heart rate values and streaming them to the iPod Touch (5th Gen) I had paired with it.
Pictured below is heart rate data the LifeBEAM helmet gathered from an actual bike ride. I actually had to pump up 4 bike tires, because of some technical difficulties, and somewhere in there I'm frantically searching for my cycling shoes, so I don't get moving until about the 10 minute mark. The excerpt below shows the 15 minute mark until I get home, around the 25 minute mark, after which I leave the helmet on for a few minutes to see how my heart rate recovers.
In addition to bike rides, I wore the helmet at home around the house to test different situations. The data was detailed enough for me to see a subtle difference between sitting at a desk while working for a stretch and sitting at a desk meditating for a stretch. Giving/receiving a hug was also detectable -- it caused an immediate drop in heart rate followed by a rise back to normal.
Other items in the box
The helmet comes with a fabric carrying sack and a limited edition carry-on case, a USB to microUSB charging cable, a few spare velcro dots and the requisite set-up manuals and safety leaflets.
Crash Replacement Policy
When you have a lifesaving helmet that's also contains an expensive biosensor, the goals are a little at odds -- in the unfortunate case where the physical helmet does its job and protects your head in a crash, it means you shouldn't use it again, as its effectiveness will be greatly reduced. An expensive gadget down the drain?
Luckily, LifeBEAM has a helmet replacement policy regarding bike accidents/crashes -- under this policy, you may be eligible for a discount on a replacement LifeBEAM helmet.
LET'S BREAK IT DOWN
Features & Added Benefits
Aerospace-level heart rate and calories burned, as detected and recorded via a tiny sensor that rests against your forehead. Real-time data streams to an ANT+ or BLE -enabled device. Safe to use in rain or sun, and in sweaty conditions as well. This CE and CPSC certified helmet meets U.S. and European safety standards.
Hardware & Wearing
Helmet form factor that is available in two sizes and one color (white). Adjustable circumference via a knob on the back of the helmet, and secures to head via under-the-chin straps. Comes with a fabric carrying sack and a limited edition carry-on case.
Battery Life & Charging
The helmet's lithium ion battery has approximately 17 hours of use on a full charge. Helmet emits a "time to charge" warning beep when it has 30 minutes of charge left. You can check the battery status via an indicator light on the back of the helmet. Comes with a USB to microUSB charging cable.
Streams your realtime data to an ANT+ or BLE -enabled device.
Compatible devices include bike computers, sports watches, BLE-enabled Android and BLE-enabled iOS devices.