Covid-Friendly Wearable Shocks You With 450 Volts When You Touch Your Face
Instagram has a delightful ability to surprise me with ads for pointless objects I absolutely can’t live without. A little box that sanitizes my keys with a blast of UV light? Yes! A subscription plan for growing micro-broccoli? Why wasn’t I informed sooner?? A meal delivery service whose products appear to consist exclusively of colorful liquids in fancy glass bottles? Sign me up!
Recently, though, I was scrolling through Instagram and saw an ad for a product that I almost couldn’t believe: the Pavlok.
The ad features a GIF of a person wearing a Fitbit-style wristband, with the text “Eliminate Cravings.” Across the frame from their hand sits a giant slice of cake. As the person reaches towards the cake, the wristband turns red and zaps them with electricity. You can tell it’s zapping them because the whole frame vibrates, and little lightning bolts shoot out of the wristband, like in an old-school Batman movie. All that’s missing is an animated “POW!”
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I turned to aversive conditioning to get my time back. It worked.
At first, I thought it must be either a joke or a metaphor. Maybe Pavlok was some kind of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy program, with a free fitness tracker built in? Or an app that analyzed your Fitbit data to somehow help you track your eating habits and lose weight?
Nope. It turns out the Pavlok is exactly what the ad suggests: a Bluetooth-connected, wearable wristband that uses accelerometers, a connected app, and a “snap circuit” to shock its users with 450 volts of electricity when they do something undesirable. The device costs $149.99 and is available on Amazon. The company says it has over 100,000 customers who use the device to help kill food cravings, quit smoking, and to stop touching their face.
To paraphrase Lin Manuel-Miranda, I immediately saw two fundamental truths at the exact same time. Firstly, the mere existence of an automated self-flagellation wristband is proof that we’ve reached Peak Wearables. And second, this is the perfect device for Our Times.
The Pavlok was originally created in 2014 to help people break specific, negative habits like smoking or nail-biting. The device is based on a variation of classical conditioning — famously described by Ivan Pavlov, the device’s namesake — called aversion therapy.
The concept is simple — pair a negative behavior like smoking with a negative stimulus like an electric shock, and a patient’s brain will begin to associate them together. Before long, even the thought of a cigarette will evoke memories of painful shocks, and the patient will stop smoking. Pavlok’s founder says he came up with the idea for the company after paying an assistant to slap him every time he went on Facebook.
Aversion therapy is wildly controversial, not least for its history of being used in horrific attempts to “cure” homosexuality. It’s also not especially effective. Some interventions — like those targeting alcohol abuse — can work in a clinic, but quickly become ineffective when patients return home and don’t have a therapist doling out “deterrents” when they perform a negative action.
Pavlok aims to change that by putting a tiny, automated pain generator on your wrist. In early versions of the device, users had to opt to shock themselves — such as when they had a food craving. Today the tech has advanced, and the Pavlok can “detect when you bite your nails” and perform other actions, the company claims.
Through a Chrome extension, it can also (Doom scrollers rejoice) automatically punish actions like spending too much time on Facebook, Twitter, and other potentially time-wasting websites. It can zap you when you open too many Chrome tabs — a use case I’d love to recommend to several programmer friends. You can even tell it to shock you if you fail to complete items on your to-do list.
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But perhaps the most relevant feature for today’s world is the ability to program the device to shock you every time you touch your face. This is something which humans do alarmingly often — up to 16 times per hour. The practice has been implicated in spreading coronavirus, or at least contaminating face masks and leading to wasted PPE.
Pavlok got on the anti-face-touching bandwagon early, with a message to its users (which it calls “Shockers”) on March 4, 2020. “Even if you KNOW something is bad for you, it’s easy to still do it on autopilot,” the company wrote. But not, Pavlok implies, when you have a wristband ready to zap you out of complacency — up to 150 times on each charge. Other devices like the Immutouch perform a similar function, but don’t go so far as to actually physically hurt their users when they don’t comply.
Since the start of the pandemic, Pavlok has leaned into the Covid-19 angle. The company is running new ads on social media that read, “No one knows how long we will stay quarantined… the majority will end up sicker, fatter and unhealthier because they stopped sticking to their positive routines. If you had ordered Pavlok a week ago, you’d have broken your habit by now.” It’s the company’s typical macho stance — one that got its founder kicked off Shark Tank for being an “asshole.”
Beyond fighting cravings, the device also includes an automatic mode that uses its onboard accelerometers and other sensors to detect when you’re asleep. You can set an alarm clock for a specific time, and if you don’t wake up on schedule, the device will start gently vibrating to wake you. If that doesn’t work, it will escalate to jolting you.
In this era of a bitterly divided political landscape, pervasive racial prejudice, and the looming specter of Covid-19 death, I only need to look at Twitter to feel that I’m being jolted awake with a powerful electrical shock. At the same time, the real thing feels kind of appropriate.
Pavlok may sound bizarre, but it’s just the logical extension of an overall trend toward using tech to tweak and prod our brains into new ways of thinking. You can lull your brain into blissful relaxation with Calm or Headspace, track the bejesus out of it with Welltory or Muse, or exercise it with Lumosity or Elevate. Pavlok acts as the metaphorical stick to these apps’ carrots, giving you the option to beat your brain into submission instead of just tweaking it.
The cybersecurity implications of a web-connected device designed to hurt its users are probably pretty obvious. Bluetooth — on which the Pavlok relies for communications — is not especially secure. A hacker could potentially access the device via its wireless connection, or by hacking its connected smartphone app. They could then shock users at will.
In theory, this would be little more than an annoyance — the user could always take the band off. But paired with location data, an attacker could potentially trigger the device during a dangerous activity — like driving — forcing the user to try to stay on the road while yanking off a device that’s zapping them at full voltage. Pavlok could guard against this by disabling shocks when users are performing potentially hazardous actions (the Irish Times recommends disabling the device manually while driving).
Then there’s the question of the shocks themselves. A recent teardown provides some details about Pavlok’s internal workings. The device generates shocks by charging several capacitors from a small lithium battery, and then discharging them into the user’s skin all at once. Pavlok recommends talking to a doctor before using the device, but says that the shocks themselves are entirely safe.
I spoke to a biomedical engineer, who mostly concurred. Even if an attacker could somehow tweak the device’s internals to deliver more power at a quicker rate, the positioning of the device on the wrist and the basic hardware Pavlok provides is unlikely to provide a recipe for anything dangerous. Unless they “put it on their eyeballs or something,” my source said, the device is likely safe — even under the control of an attacker.
Outside the self-improvement space, the device could have some other beneficial applications, too. The same potential of delivering shocks while users are driving could actually be a lifesaver. More than 800 people die per year from falling asleep at the wheel, according to the CDC. Pavlok provides an API that allows external apps to interface with the device. If this was tied into a car’s drowsiness detection system, it could lightly jolt users back awake if they started to nod off.
My grandfather would infamously shout “GROK!!!!” at the top of his lungs to surprise himself into alertness while driving the snowy roads of New Hampshire at night. Pavlok could take his strategy in a new tech-enabled direction.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the Pavlok, though, is that — at least for certain users and certain conditions — it seems to work. Many have claimed that the device helped them quit smoking, and Twitter is awash in users with positive things to say about the device (as well as a thriving community that uses it for remote BDSM sessions). Even professional tech reviewers seem surprised — in a video for Business Insider, reviewer Abby Tang said of the device she used to stop biting her fingernails, “I don’t think I used it right. But I used it successfully, because I have fingernails” (Tang also says she would not choose to purchase it).
Is the Pavlok the most effective way to address bad habits? Probably not. Actual therapy with a licensed professional who can help people develop strategies to address their mental health challenges — instead of zapping them away — is almost certainly the better approach. But for a certain set of users who want to experiment with a different method (or just really, really need to wake up on time), the Pavlok may — shockingly — be the perfect device.