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A Drunk’s Best Friend: BACtrack Introduces A $50 Smartphone Breathalyzer

The device fits on a keychain.

BACtrack CEO Keith Nothacker has an ambitious goal: He wants every person of drinking age living in North America to own his or her own breathalyzer. He hopes to get closer to that goal by introducing a new smartphone-compatible alcohol-measuring device for just $50.

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BACtrack VioPhoto by Alice Truong for Fast Company

Following up on its first Bluetooth-connected breathalyzer, which was introduced last spring, the San Francisco company on Tuesday launched BACtrack Vio, a smaller, cheaper breathalyzer that can be carried around on a keychain–a nice reminder by the car keys–along with a refreshed app.

Since its founding in 2001, BACtrack has gained a 68% market share on breathalyzers, according to the company. Its products can be found in 20 countries and more than 10,000 retail locations, including Walgreens, Costco, Best Buy, AutoZone, and Pep Boys. In the 2012 to 2013 calendar year, sales rose 73.5%, and the company expects another year of double digit growth for 2013 to 2014.

Though Nothacker says his products are comparable in functionality to police units, the cost of a BACtrack product is drastically lower: from $30 (for a non-smartphone-compatible model) to $150–compared to about $1,000 for cops’ version. “It’s because there are only three companies that sell to law enforcement, and they’ve been sharing the market for decades and there’s no real competition,” he tells Fast Company.

Inside the Vio breathalyzer is a sensor attached to a circuit board that measures the change in resistance, based on the number of alcohol particles that hit the sensor when the user blows. About half the size of BACtrack Mobile, the new Vio model uses a fold-out channel the user blows through (with the option to use a mouthpiece accessory) and is powered by a AAA battery. The battery door was flimsy in the early media unit I received, but the company says it addressed the design flaw by mass production time.

The company will continue to sell BACtrack Mobile, which features a police-grade fuel sensor, as a higher-end $129 option aimed at “consumers who are price insensitive who want the best,” Nothacker says. Because of the sensor and a miniature air pump that isolates air from deep within the lungs, he says BACtrack Mobile can be used by professional groups. BACtrack Vio, on the other hand, is intended only for consumer use.

“We’ve been doing this for 13 years, and wanted to design [a breathalyzer] that’s affordable, sexy, that people really want to use,” he said. “We took our Bluetooth board, our alcohol sensor board, mouthpiece, battery space, and we dropped it in a design that minimizes size. Our goal is to make this [something] everybody can bring everywhere.”

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Along with the hardware, BACtrack rolled out an updated app that sports a fresh redesign–a clean alternative to the previous interface that looked stuck in the early 2000s, complete with a textured charcoal background.

The refreshed app better lays out information, which means historical results are easier to digest. In my own testing (what a great excuse to drink on the job), the BACtrack Vio readings were in line with estimates from a traditional BAC calculator–which factors in gender, weight, number of drinks, and time–as well as those from BACtrack Mobile. About an hour into a drink, both BACtrack Vio and BACtrack Mobile said my blood-alcohol level was at 0.036, not far from the estimate of 0.035.

BACtrack’s guessing feature, left, and results charted against estimatesImage courtesy of BACtrack

The app can also record your friends’ readings. Nothacker says BACtrack is a popular device in social settings, and friends often guess their blood-alcohol content based on the number of drinks consumed. Noticing this, the company added a feature that lets users log their guesses before they blow, charting estimates against measured results. But Nothacker insists: “It’s 100% not gamification. There’s no reward for guessing correctly. It’s to see how guesses are getting better over time,” saying the device can help people understand alcohol’s effect on their bodies.

The company, which last month released a report on the drinking habits of its users, will also compare a user’s readings against other anonymized measurements for that day.

“We started thinking let’s incorporate some of this macrodata into the app and get users thinking about how alcohol affects them,” Nothacker says.

About the author

Based in San Francisco, Alice Truong is Fast Company's West Coast correspondent. She previously reported in Chicago, Washington D.C., New York and most recently Hong Kong, where she (left her heart and) worked as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.

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