It’s a Thursday afternoon and I’m five minutes into reading about Marco Rubio’s tax policies. In reality, I should be paying attention to my professor who is discussing the different types of volcanoes on Earth. Given that his class is a mini-course that I am taking pass/fail, I have little motivation to pay attention.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the small plastic box velcroed to my left wrist vibrates, reminding me to redirect my focus toward my professor.
That small, plastic, watch-esque device is called the RE-vibe, and it was created by FokusLabs, a small tech company based in North Carolina. Rich Brancaccio, the founder of FokusLabs and a school psychologist specializing in ADHD and autism, created the device to help young children stay focused in school.
“The RE-vibe is essentially a virtual tap on the shoulder,” Brancaccio explained to me. “When it vibrates, it poses the question, ‘Am I doing what I’m supposed to be doing?’ If you answer ‘yes,’ use that as positive reinforcement. If you answer ‘no,’ use that as a reminder to get on task.”
This mechanism is decidedly simple; there is no screen on the RE-vibe and you can’t actually do anything with the device. As Brancaccio explained to me, this was intentional.
“We originally planned on putting our algorithms on smartwatches, but we found that the smartwatches themselves were distracting. People will get a text or a Twitter notification and go, ‘Oh, I should check that out.’ The very thing that is supposed to keep you from being distracted is the thing that distracts you.”
While the device was originally created for young kids, the modern college student is the key test subject in analyzing the RE-vibe’s functionality.
Tasked with maintaining stellar grades, active social lives and general social productivity, college students are forcing their brains to multitask beyond physical capabilities more than ever before.
Such a society has seen a rise in students turning to medication like Adderall for help focusing, despite not having prescriptions. In our world context, singular focus is not an option; multitasking is the desired result that is worth risking even one’s life over.
This ideology exists in stark contrast to the RE-vibe. When discussing the simplistic nature of the first-edition RE-vibe, Brancaccio stated, “I think it’s important to pick one thing and do it really well.” Though he was speaking about the design of his company’s first product, his message permeates through the device’s guiding ideology: Stop messing around and focus on the task at hand.
For the past month, I have been trying to focus on the task at hand with the help of the RE-vibe. In many cases — like my mini-course — I have found the device extremely helpful. When I found myself wandering off, the RE-vibe would often buzz me back into focus. While reading a long, dull textbook chapter, my wrist-worn “tap on the shoulder” made sure I didn’t fall asleep or check my Twitter. In these instances, I felt empowered to maintain focus for extended periods of time.
However, the buzzes didn’t just occur when I was distracted. Due to a lack of sensor technology, the RE-vibe can only approximate when it thinks the wearer might be distracted. What this meant for me was a lot of buzzes while I was walking to class, taking exams and focusing intently on my task at hand. Over time, these meaningless buzzes encouraged me to ignore the device in situations where buzzes might actually help me.
Brancaccio said future versions of the RE-vibe hope to tackle this issue; his team already has an algorithm that can sense when somebody is truly distracted.
The real problem — the one without an answer in the pipeline — lies in determining when people are focused. In their current state, motion sensors, heart rate monitors and related sensors aren’t advanced enough to detect such nuanced context.
Despite false vibrations, I found myself appreciative of the instances in which the reminder served a purpose for my brain. However, for college students, I don’t know that the RE-vibe, in its current state, is the perfect answer I wanted it to be. With future iterations — which Brancaccio promised me are well in the works — that could all change. Maybe a smarter, more context-aware RE-vibe could keep college students from using Adderall as a non-prescription focus drug.
Or maybe a future version will just keep me from checking the tax policies of Bernie Sanders later on in my mini-course. My wrist hasn’t vibrated in five minutes and I’m already on the fourth page of proposed policies.
Elliott Rains can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.