When Caeden first announced its Sona band last year, the company promised the new device would reduce stress levels via a sleek interface-less leather band that could track heart rate variability (HRV, the fluctuation in timing between heartbeats). The bracelet may seem like another attempt by the fashion industry to dabble in serious technology, but the screenless device may actually provide a peek into the future of wearables.
The Sona band sends all the information it gathers about your heart rate to an accompanying mobile app. The app also integrates with the iPhone Health app to pull in daily steps, estimated calorie burn, activity levels, and distance walked. Over the course of days and weeks, heart rate variability data can paint a picture of the wearer’s overall health. If you’re tired or stressed, HRV rates are lower. The goal of Sona is to bring your heart rate variability up through deep breathing and meditation. To facilitate these meditations, Caeden’s mobile app offers a series of breathing exercises, either with a guiding vocal track or ambient sound.
When the band arrived at my office in August, it was as beautiful as promised. The leather felt durable but soft, and on the wrist, the bracelet both looked and felt luxe. It also comes with a second silicon wristband that can be swapped in for workouts. But when I tried to pair it with the smartphone app I soon realized there were some serious bugs.
My Sona wristband struggled to pair to my phone. Even after it was able to connect, sending data between devices often took more than a minute, and sometimes several. Other times the app would completely freeze. For the month that I wore the band, it was only able to reliably connect to the app for a week and a half. Then the leather snapped off the clasp, rendering the whole thing completely unusable. Furthermore, the data that the Sona pulled from Apple’s Health app was wrong, having included my daily subway commute in the tally of my steps.
Despite these issues, it’s clear Caeden’s team had the right ideas about building an interface. Lots of companies at the forefront of wearable design—like Apple, Fitbit, and Garmin—are scratching their collective heads over how to make interacting with a tiny screen appealing. Right now their primary solution is reducing how much a person has to tap on the phone and incorporating more voice commands. Brands are also trying to make these high-tech bracelets more visually appealing. Instead of appending fashionable accessories to advanced technology, as Apple has done by partnering with Hermès on watchbands, Sona made a real piece of modern jewelry and outsourced its interface to your phone.
And while staying tethered to your phone may seem like an old-fashioned approach, it’s actually forward thinking. Increasingly, technology will be baked into real-life, screenless appliances. To adjust settings, we'll use an interface that can be accessed from a separate screen that doesn't bog the device down. As Google demonstrated at its recent hardware event, voice activation and artificial intelligence are becoming the mode for communicating with devices—not tapping on screens.
Despite pairing issues, the app itself is well designed and very intuitive overall. The home screen features a real-time ticker of your beats per minute, along with an accounting of the wearer’s daily activity against their preset activity goals. At the bottom of the screen, there is "Your Daily Health," a weekly heart-rate variability report. Three dots at the top of the screen indicate that you can swipe left and right to reveal other features. A swipe right brings up a screen with five icons, each of which charts out data from the iPhone Health app. A swipe to the left presents a screen that looks like the first, but instead of activity, it reports how far along you are in your meditation goals. It also displays six meditations to chose from. Each meditation comes with a graphic illustration, indicating when you should breathe in and out. Though the app does host the meditations, it mostly serves as a repository for information. I don’t need to look at the app in order for the band to do its work. This is what’s so beautiful about the screenless device experience. It's technology that doesn’t demand constant attention because it’s working in the background.
That said, the band could benefit from some added functionality. Over the course of a busy day, I rarely thought about the Sona or the app. While some apps have been criticized for inundating users with endless pings, Sona could stand to incorporate more alerts. At the moment, the only notification Sona offers is a vibration for new texts or calls. There is no option to set your band to buzz for anything health- or meditation-related. Considering that Sona is designed to encourage people to take time out of their day to breathe, a reminder to do so would be nice. Right now, it’s up to the user to go into the app, but there’s nothing driving them there. I have to remember to check in with the app to meditate.
In terms of other alerts that would be welcome additions, Sona could push a notification to your phone or a vibration from the band if your HRV starts to dip. These options make way for bigger, better uses of Sona—ones that are driven by artificial intelligence. For instance, if Sona integrated with my calendar, it could suggest a time I might be able to fit in a quick meditation and prompt me to schedule it.
Building out these kinds of capabilities will be increasingly important if Caden wants to capture a piece of the dense wearables market. That is especially true given that Apple’s latest Watch OS features an app called "Breathe," which offers breathing exercises much like Sona's.
But the screenless band may still be at an advantage over competitors that still rely on screens, like the Apple Watch, Android Wear, and Fitbit, even without the added features I discussed. Many people are loathe to add yet another distracting device to their life, and Sona has the benefit of not looking like technology. To the casual onlooker, the $199 bracelet is slick jewelry. For consumers, that makes the underlying technology feel like a bonus. And this, it seems, is where the world of wearables is headed.