I was standing on stage when my bra started buzzing, telling me to chill out.
Speaking in front of crowds makes me nervous, and the “mindfulness” tracker I was wearing knew it. As I read one of my stories aloud to an audience of a few hundred at Fusion's Real Future Fair, my breathing had become rapid and irregular. This signaled to Spire, the device clipped onto my bra, that I was feeling tense. It vibrated three time, prompting me to take a deep breath.
I did. And then I immediately relaxed.
There is a delightful irony in the idea that a piece of technology can deliver "mindfulness," the yoga crowd's mantra for enlightened living. After all, it is our devices that deliver the constant din of distractions that interfere with our being "present" in the first place. This is why most mindfulness exercises involve ditching our technology for summer camp-style retreats or the WiFi-free boonies.
But Spire, which launched last year, claims it can harness technology to make us a little more present and self-aware. The device monitors respiratory patterns to track physical activity and three states of mind—tension, focus and calm. The idea is that making the wearer more aware of how they're feeling will force them to think about why they're feeling that way and, if necessary, fix it.
I was extremely skeptical, but after two weeks of wearing one, I became a begrudging convert to the idea that a sensor feeding data to my phone could actually help me reach a heightened state of mental clarity, without the bother of yoga or meditation.
The $150 Spire resembles the kind of smooth gray stone you'd find in a Zen rock garden; it clips onto your waistband or bra, and bluetooth-syncs to an app. You can set Spire to vibrate if you've say, been tense for a few minutes, an act that, like the buzz of a text message in your pocket, is supposed to jolt you into immediate consciousness. I set mine to vibrate if I'd been tense for more than three minutes, but also to tell me when I'd been focused or calm for more than 20 minutes so that I could take note of what was keeping me so zen.
The first day I used it, I stared at my phone in disbelief as, in the midst of extreme panic over a story that was falling apart, Spire told me I was not tense, but instead extremely focused and at one point even calm.
Later that evening, though, when I was sitting at a bar with a friend, having a fun time finding her dates on Tinder, things apparently got pretty tense.
Spire seemed off.
But as I used it more, I began to notice interesting patterns in the data. I noticed that one of my friends tended to make me feel tense, suggesting underlying tensions in our relationship that I had for too long ignored. Spire helped me figure out that I focused better when wearing noise-canceling headphones and writing with a document zoomed-in full screen to cut out distractions like Slack and iMessage. And while I have long turned to shopping as a form of stress-relief, Spire charted spiking anxiety levels every time I stress-shopped. I thought about it, and realized I do usually feel worse after a stress-shopping session, guilty for spending money on something that I probably didn't need.
At the end of my first week wearing Spire, the device showed that I had vastly improved my ability to achieve calm. I also actually felt more calm.
The basic principle behind Spire has been vetted by science: the patterns of our breath are directly linked to how we feel. Some research has shown that different mental states have distinct respiration patterns associated with them. And changing how we're breathing, other research has shown, can help quell everything from anxiety to migraines. Slow breathing, for example, stimulates the vagus nerve, which helps the body relax.
"Heart rate, pupil dilation, respiration patterns… there are so many ways that our emotions are manifested in our bodies," Neema Moraveji, a co-founder of Spire and the founder of the Calming Technology Lab at Stanford University, told me. "But it turns out there is only one of these that you have direct control over, and that's respiration."
Moraveji got interested in breathing as a way to regulate mental state while backpacking through the Himalayas in his early twenties. Spire is based on Moraveji's dissertation work at Stanford, which looked at how to build technology that regulates a person's breathing without interfering too much as they went about their day. His original prototype, Breathwear, was a band worn around the waist.
But a waist band was a hard sell to the wearable-tech crowd. So Spire was reincarnated as a clip-on, with a sensor that detects subtle expansions and contractions of the torso. When breathing is slow and smooth, it indicates to Spire that you're calm. When it's fast, but highly regular, it's a sign of focus. And when it's rapid and irregular, like mine when I was on stage, Spire interprets that as your being tense. There are also short guided mindfulness exercises built into the app that Spire occasionally suggests you try out.
Moraveji told me that using Spire has not only made him more zen overall, but helped him identify and change subtle things in his life. For example, he figured out that he's generally more focused if he opens up a new browser window to work in, rather than keeping a million tabs open. He also realized that driving slower makes him feel more calm.
"The Pandora’s Box of technology is out of the bag," his co-founder, Jonathan Palley, told me. "We’re not going to put it back, so now we need technology to counteract it. That’s what Spire is."
Spire tracks its users' data and has found that when users receive a notification that they're tense, most of them slow their breathing within 90 seconds.
The Spire team is still working on data interpretation. Moraveji noted, for example, that when I was stressing over work I might have seemed focused because sometimes we are hyper-focused when stressed. Spire, he told me, doesn't yet measure all forms of stress.
To be truly useful, Spire needs to deliver deeper, more nuanced information. The next software update to Spire, due out next year, will integrate with your phone's calendar and location data to allow Spire to make more informed guesses about what's influencing your state of mind. Eventually they'd like to integrate it with other things, like e-mail clients — which is great unless knowing a company has access to that much data about your life stresses you out, making it hard to be mindful.