Haptics to Break Habits

Kayla Liederbach
Oct 19, 2016 · 4 min read

Aneela Kumar had a secret she had kept for nearly 20 years. From friends, from her parents — even from her husband. She was a “trichster,” someone who unconsciously and habitually pulls out their hair.

For years, Aneela dealt with feelings of isolation and shame because of her inability to control her hair-pulling. Negative, self-esteem-depleting emotions are common among the millions of other people who suffer from Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors (BFRBs) that include hair pulling, skin picking, thumb sucking, and nail biting.

It wasn’t until she encountered a definition of trichotillomania, or hair-pulling, online and started researching the condition that she began to understand there were so many others out there like her. According to a 2013 study by the National Institutes for Health, approximately 4% of the population suffers from trichotillomania alone.

Still, she kept it a secret from those close to her, applying makeup to hide the missing hair. Until one day her husband caught her without the makeup and she realized it was time to get help.

Acknowledging the issue “was almost like releasing the issue itself,” says Aneela. But while acceptance was an important first step, she realized that tackling subconscious activity is an incredibly daunting task. Psychologist Carol Novak, of The TLC Foundation for Body-focused Repetitive Behaviors, agrees, “It’s hard to get at the automatic pulling because you’re so unaware of what you’re doing.”

Aneela and Sameer (her husband and co-founder) saw an opportunity with this particular condition, to “raise awareness” in an entirely different way. As tech-savvy individuals, they had the idea to use haptics to draw a sufferer’s attention to their repetitive behavior, making them aware of it so that they could choose to stop. Haptic technology uses kinesthetic communication: the sense of touch through pressure, motion, or vibration to give feedback. Soon, they began working on a solution alongside two engineers they met through the Minneapolis startup community.

The result? A prototype version of what would eventually become Keen, a wristband that resembles many of the fitness bands on the market, but which alerts the wearer to the behavior or activity they’re trying to eliminate. Within the first few days of wearing the band, Aneela noticed a much greater sense of awareness and control over her hair-pulling. It wasn’t an instantaneous solution, of course — such deeply-ingrained habits can take months to break and require a great deal of effort and willpower — but everything flowed from that initial awareness.

“You have the chance to take control of that conversation in your head,” says Aneela. And as she began to notice improvement, she and the rest of the team realized their product could help other people with BFRBs. And so HabitAware was born, with the stylish and discreet wristband now known as Keen as its flagship product.

Keen — Stylish

Keen uses a gentle and inaudible vibration similar to the haptic feedback that Apple built into the Apple Watch. It’s designed to bring a specified behavior from the subconscious to the conscious mind, since it’s difficult to correct something if someone isn’t aware of what they’re doing. By calling the user’s attention to the action, they are given a choice and an added measure of control.

Users first choose a behavior (or behaviors) they want to work on eliminating, then they train the app to recognize the hand movement associated with that behavior. When the wearer replicates that movement while wearing the band, it uses haptic technology to discreetly vibrate and call attention to the action. The built-in motion detector is precise enough to separate targeted behaviors, such as hair pulling, from benign activities like drinking water or scratching one’s nose.

Keen — Sporty Black

Aneela and Sameer’s desire to scale their new technology so they could help the numerous other people affected by BFRBs required additional resources. So they decided to apply to SOSV’s HAX Accelerator, the world’s largest hardware accelerator. HAX brought them out to Shenzhen, China for over three months to work with manufacturers to improve the effectiveness, design, and reach of the product.

Now, with their prototypes undergoing successful beta testing and pre-orders shipping in January, Aneela looks back on the journey of the last year and a half with a sense of satisfaction. Not only has she brought her own hair-pulling under control to the point where she rarely feels the need to wear her band, but she and the team at HabitAware have laid the groundwork to help millions of Americans confront their own BFRBs.

With Kumar’s Keen, through a subtle haptic vibration, people can start to heal from hair pulling, thumb sucking, and nail biting. By dispelling the shame and isolation that go with these habits, users can regain the self-confidence to embark on a freer life.

Reference: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24049966

Originally published at sosv.com on October 19, 2016.


Posts from our frontier deep tech programs: HAX, IndieBio, Chinaccelerator, MOX, and dlab.

Kayla Liederbach

Written by

Storyteller at SOSV, WORT FM, and Rootfire. Music and tech.


Posts from HAX (hardware), IndieBio (life sciences), Chinaccelerator/MOX (cross-border internet), and dlab (blockchain).