It’s the stuff of dystopian science fiction — a device strapped to your body, remotely controlled, and ready to deliver an electric shock at the first hint of disobedience. I could hardly wait to try it.
Developed in Boston, the wriststrap is called Pavlok, in honor of Ivan Pavlov, the Russian scientist who used electric shocks to train the brains of dogs. And it’s the most radical device yet to come out of the wearable computing movement.
Unlike all those much-hyped smart watches, Pavlok won’t track your heart rate, display your appointment calendar or even tell you what time it is. Instead, it delivers a tiny, nasty electric shock that tells you it’s time to hit the gym, work on that novel, get out of bed. With Pavlok, you’ll stop goofing off—or else.
“I have a hundred devices that track what I do,” said Pavlok co-founder Maneesh Sethi, a Stanford psychology graduate and author of four books on computer software and website design. “But this is the first device that changes what I do.”
The Pavlok prototype I tested is built like a wristwatch. But the finished product will be a rectangular module that you can snap into a wristband or glue to any part of your body. It contains a Bluetooth radio that links to a smartphone app.
The device can issue a variety of alerts, some friendly, some not. For instance, if the phone’s location service shows that you’re not in the gym at 6 a.m, Pavlok can beep to remind you. If you still don’t move, it can gently vibrate. A few minutes later, the vibration gets sharper and more aggressive. And if all this hasn’t worked, you hear an ominous series of beeps, followed by a crisp electric shock.
The rechargeable battery delivers up to 300 volts, compared to the 12 volts of a standard car battery. But the amount of current is far too little to do real harm or cause real pain. And yet, it felt like pain--a cruel little snap that sent a spasm through my fingers. Hit me with a few of these during the day, and I’d start to put my house in order, quick.
Pavlok only helps with habits that can be digitally detected: it has an app you install on your computer, tablet or smartphone that monitors your web-surfing habits; it uses your phone’s GPS system to tell, for example, if you get to the office on time. Sethi hopes software developers will create more apps to help Pavlok to kick us around.
The Pavlok could be some twisted hacker’s ultimate prize, but Sethi said the interface will have tight security to keep total strangers from zapping you.
There will, however, be an option to outsource the punishment. Pavlok will also have a feature in which users can let trusted friends administer the shock therapy. Forget you’re meeting a pal at 8, and he can use a phone app to remind you, the hard way.
Sethi has an odd relationship with pain. You can find a video of him on YouTube, persuading total strangers to slap him, just for the heck of it (It was part of pilot for a travel show he was pitching at the time). Then he began to fret that he was wasting too much time on Facebook. So in October 2012, Sethi paid a young woman $8 a hour to hang out with him in San Francisco, and slap him whenever he logged on to the social media site. The experiment worked; Sethi’s productivity soared. But the young lady joined the Peace Corps and moved to Cameroon, and Sethi began thinking about a cheaper, more practical alternative.
A couple of weeks later, Sethi asked an engineer friend, “wouldn’t it be funny if we took a dog’s shock collar and made it shock me every time I used Facebook?” The friend immediately suggested a trip to the nearest Radio Shack.
After assembling a crude prototype, Sethi got $50,000 in seed funding and free office space from Bolt, a high-tech business incubator on Boston’s Chauncy Street, near South Station. He also hooked up with Jim Lynch, lead engineer on iRobot Corp.’s Roomba floor-cleaning robot.
When the Pavlok team sought to raise an additional $50,000 on the popular crowdfunding website Indiegogo, the company received over $136,000 from more than 820 investors. If nothing else, it proves there are a lot of people out there with a surplus of cash and a shortage of self-discipline.
Will Pavlok work?
“The question is, are we dogs?” asks Todd Farchione, an assistant professor at Boston University’s Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders. “Will it modify our behavior in the same way as it does for animals?”
Farchione thinks the answer is yes, but only to a point. There’s research showing that people avoid behaviors they associate with a bad feeling. But the research also shows that when the bad feeling goes away, most people revert to their old habits.
“You have to continue it indefinitely,” said Farchione, “or once you stop it, you’ll see it will come back.”
Or you could just reinforce the shock by rewarding good behavior, Farchione added.
Sethi has thought of this. He plans to offer a service that will reward Pavlok users with small amounts of money or other benefits for good activities, such as working out regularly.
Still, while Farchione suspects that Pavlok might help break some relatively mild habits, like driving too fast, it might not work as well on stronger habits, like spending three hours a day on Facebook.
Besides, while Pavlov’s dogs had paws, exasperated Pavlok users will have hands. “You could just take it off,” Farchione said.
But anyone willing to pay $199 for a Pavlok when it goes on sale next year might use it long enough to benefit from the experience. Maybe I should get one. I’ve got plenty of bad habits, and 300 volts of willpower could be just what I need.
Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@GlobeTechLab.