Review: Pavlok

ALT. TITLE: The lengths I’ll go to in order to build my portfolio of tech writing pieces.

What’s that on your wrist? Is it a FitBit? Oh my god, it does WHAT?

Wearables are all the rage right now. You know, tech what you can WEAR on your bod. Years ago I jumped on the wear-wagon and got myself a Jawbone UP. It promised me the world; track your eating, your movement, your sleep! Become a new person overnight and accessorise that person with a funky neon bracelet.

Needless to say, it didn’t work. I was too lazy to ever input the calories, or ever walk anywhere, and the sleep thing was more of an annoyance than anything. It also stopped working after it got wet a few times and so I just gave up on it.

But apparently I don’t learn from these mistakes and was lured into the trap of believing that my life wouldn’t be complete without the latest must-have wrist trap: a Pavlok. Pavlok describes itself as “the first device that breaks habits by deleting temptation.” If that reads like it’s some kind of brainwashing, then I’d say that’s more or less right. Working off Pavlovian conditioning (geddit? not sure what the ‘lok’ bit is though), it’s a wearable bracelet that gives you a mild electric shock when you press it. Yes, that’s really what it is. Here’s a couple of picture images:

2016-06-22 15.34.30 2016-06-22 15.35.22

As you can see, it’s actually just a battery that fits into a larger plastic sheath. Put together, the whole thing is slightly larger than a watch, which makes it pretty clunky to wear. If you wear long-sleeved shirts, then you either have to hoik your cuffs over it all the time, or permanently live with asymetrical sleeves (the horror). Compare this to the figure-hugging design of the FitBit or Jawbone UP, devices which are meant to be as much fashion accessories as a piece of tech. There’s clearly work to be done at Pavlok in the design department.

But what can they do, really? The device is basically just a battery you strap to yourself. It’s got some other stuff in there like a Bluetooth receiver, vibration capabilities, some kind of little speaker and lots of LEDs for status displays. But it is mostly a battery and as such, there is a direct relationship between its size and utility (battery life). But that’s one for the boffins to figure out. LET’S TALK ABOUT PAIN.

So this thing gives you electric shocks when you press it. The shocks are meant to be unpleasant. Otherwise, you wouldn’t feel conditioned to stop, would you? For the faint of heart, you can control the level of the zap through the mind-boggingly superfluous app, or by lightly tapping the Pavlok itself. When I started, I had it at around 25% but I soon had to increase that as I became used to the sensation. And eventually it stopped being painful at all, which I think is a problem. Just as the body learns to condition behaviour to negative stimuli, so too is it able to adapt to them.

When I was little, I tried Stop’n’Grow to prevent nail biting. It’s basically a bitter-tasting nail varnish that you use to help yourself off biting. But of course you simply get used to the taste. As I’d got the Pavlok to help myself stop biting my nails too, it was kind of ironic that I ran into this same issue. I guess my body/mind just loves biting nails so much that it’ll do anything to keep at it. You could punch me in the face really really hard every time I bit, and I’d probably still go right at ’em. In fact, that’d only make me more anxious and make me bite even more.

Because that’s the real issue, isn’t it? Habits like nail biting, hair pulling, and skin picking aren’t done so much because of the positive feelings derived from them, but as a outer manifestation of an inner unrest. Compare to smoking, for instance, in which you’re physically addicted to a substance and demanding that in and of itself. There’s no ‘rush’ from nail biting, just a relief. So you can’t treat nail biting in the same way as you’d treat smoking, or similar habits. I don’t think I’ll ever stop biting my nails until I conquer my own inner anxieties, and strapping an electric shock device to myself can’t be the right direction.

It also bears an all-too-similar appearance to ECT (Electroconvulsive therapy), in which electric shocks are administered to treat mental health problems. As history – and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – has taught us, this isn’t really the right approach.

But psychology aside, it’s worth talking about the product as a piece of technology. Functionally, it works fine. The device is responsive to the touch and mostly zaps me just as I’d expect. On the occasion that I don’t feel anything, it’s usually a result of not having the strap done up tight enough to complete the circuit, so my bad I guess.

One fundamental flaw in the idea, as many, many people I’ve talked to about it have pointed out, is that you have to self-administer the shocks. So it’s entirely on you to make sure that you’re properly treating yourself. This is a pretty big drawback, as the exercise collapses back down into a matter of willpower. If I don’t have the willpower to stop myself biting, it’s a big leap to assume I’ll have the willpower to instead give myself an electric shock every time I notice myself biting.

That’s the other problem, I have to notice it. Habits like nail biting are mostly unconscious. A lot of the time I don’t even notice my hand at my mouth, it just pops up there of its own accord. So I’ve had to rely on other people to remind me that I’m biting and then shock myself. In a few cases, people have taken this to mean literally grabbing my wrist and shocking me, which isn’t much fun. And if people are going to remind me to shock myself, maybe they could just tell me to biting in the first place? Noticing a pattern yet? Basically, the Pavlok seems to do a lot of work to make itself redundant.

I should add that there is a function in the Pavlok app (which works over Bluetooth, available on iOS/Android) that automatically zaps when you put your hand to your face. I guess the device has an inbuilt accelerometer. This sounds like the perfect solution, but I never once got it to work. Also, most people have TWO WRISTS so it’s literally a half measure. Nice try, though!

The app also doesn’t do anything else like tracking your movement or anything. So if you want to do that, I guess you’ll need to buy ANOTHER wristband? Depends how much you value your wrist real estate I guess. The app does have a Headspace-style mindfulness course that guides you through your first days with the device, but it wasn’t anything special.

Anyway, I want to wrap this up with a very sarcastic conclusion. I’m of the opinion that the Pavlok device is a fine implementation of a dubious idea. Not only that, but that everything it does can be just as well done by a humble elastic band. So let’s compare.

PAVLOK

Pros:

  • Works most of the time
  • Could help improve your habits (there is some science supporting it, and I did see some improvements in my nails in the few months I wore it)
  • Could trick your gullible friends into thinking you have a cooler device like a FitBit
  • Getting people to put the device on and using the app to remotely shock them over and over again is great fun.
  • Decent battery life

Cons:

  • Will probably kill you if you have a heart condition
  • $179
  • Painful at the highest settings, ineffective at lower ones
  • Needing to rely on other people for it to really do anything
  • Having to put up with people asking you if it’s a FitBit all the time
  • Having to explain what the device is, and why anyone would ever willingly want to shock themselves (“No, it’s not a masochistic thing”)
  • Running the gauntlet of getting it through airport security (I never took it away with me, but imagine having to explain “Oh this, it’s just my device that gives people electric shocks…”).
  • Bigger than Godzilla.

PINGING YOURSELF WITH AN ELASTIC BAND

Pros:

  • Works all of the time
  • Literally the same psychological benefits as Pavlok
  • Comes in lots of different shapes, sizes, and colours
  • You can buy like 100 for £1
  • Infinite battery life

Cons:

  • Breaks easily (but very replaceable).
  • Doesn’t give you anything interesting to write a tech blog about
  • er… that might be it?

So, my verdict?

elastic-band

Go elastic.

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