On International Women’s Day in 2017, just months before the #Me Too movement started, Dr. Jennifer Lang was sitting in the audience the inaugural Summit in the Status of Women. The keynote speaker came out and told her story of sexual assault as a college student. “The audience was mostly tech entrepreneurs and investors,” Lang recalls. “I looked around the room and thought, ‘can’t we as a community come up with some sort of technological solution to this problem?'”
As Lang, an ob-gyn by trade knew, the numbers are at epidemic levels. An estimated 28% of women on college campuses are sexually assaulted during their education, and according to another study, 70% of the time, campus assaults somehow involve alcohol. College freshman in the fall first semester are the most vulnerable, as many are experimenting with both sex and alcohol for the first time. So a little over 12 months later, with the assistance of her cofounder Rob Kramer and the Silicon Valley design firm New Deal Design, Lang believes she’s invented just the product to make a dent on sexual assault.
It’s a connected wristband called Buzz: a free bracelet with a $1 per month cloud service. Self-funded by Lang and Kramer thus far, the concept is about to move forward into full development. Much like a Fitbit–which New Deal Design (NDD) also designed–the wearable pairs to your phone to track your state of being. Instead of steps or heart rate, however, it measures your blood alcohol level through your skin.
When you get Buzz, you set up a super intimate social network of your closest, most trusted friends. This is your first line of defense during a night out.
Then, by bumping two Buzzes together at the bar, Buzz lets two people pair on a date that’s tracked in the cloud–even if that date is as impromptu as saying “what’s up.” From that point forward, Buzz is monitoring the location and the BAC, or blood alcohol concentration, of both parties. It lets each person send so-called “good vibes” with a triple tap on the band, or send a “back off, we’re moving too fast” kind of message simply by tapping and holding it. And by pinching the band, Buzz allows you to contact a friend to call or arrive at your location–or, in the worst-case scenario, alert the authorities to get help.
Its creators insist that Buzz isn’t designed to be a handier breathalyzer that puts the impetus on a young woman to keep her sobriety. “A woman can drink in her apartment until she passes out, and never be assaulted if she’s alone,” Lang points out. Buzz is built more like a chaperone–or perhaps a digital stand-in for a BFF–that keeps an eye on what the team calls “your capacity to consent” for both parties.
With a vibration and a flash, the band gives you quick cues when you’ve reached a bit of a buzz and might want to pace yourself. As you enter the blood alcohol point of no return–that threshold where you hit real drunkenness that can lead to a vulnerable blackout–the band becomes more urgent, buzzing harder with a quick, red glow. Maybe you pay attention to the band, and maybe you don’t. But at the same time, a trusted friend you’ve designated within the app receives a push alert, letting them know it’s time to step in and watch your back.
“One of the first parts of the brain to be affected by alcohol is our ability to judge our own intoxication level: Our central frontal lobe; [the] parts of the brain that have to do with executive function and decision making get turned off quite early,” says Lang. “This is why it’s so important to have this circle of friends that can keep an eye out for you, and why we need a technology that measures–because otherwise, we’re just guessing at the level of intoxication.”
Friends aren’t the only ones that Buzz informs of your intoxication level, however. Your date gets an alert as well–through what NDD designed to be an aggressive, uncomfortable vibration. “When Jane crosses a threshold, we flash and buzz the hell out of Johnny’s device to say, ‘listen, she’s totally drunk, she’s doesn’t have the capacity to give consent to any sexual act,'” says NDD founder Gadi Amit. “The importance of this is when there is an allegation or accusation of rape, it often comes to a point of the guy claiming that it was consensual while the woman doesn’t even remember what happened. This is a very unique feature that tells to the guy, ‘listen, we know you know, from now on, she is drunk. So if she wakes up in the a.m. and she doesn’t know what happened to her, and you continue to abuse her, you’ve got a problem.”
Buzz joins a growing conversation around how–and if–technology can improve the culture of consent. Designers have struggled with the problem for years, producing apps and devices that have been sharply criticized for everything from turning sex into a legal contract to putting the impetus on the wrong party–framing sexual assault as a problem that can be “disrupted” by a product rather than an issue that needs to be addressed systemically. As society grapples with the #Me Too movement and a renewed conversation around sexual assault, Buzz’s designers hope that technology can subtly augment that process.
A difficult conversation
Amit met Kramer on a bike trip in Colorado. Two years later, Kramer would pitch Amit possibility of creating some sort of technology that could intervene on these college party nights before bad things happened. With two teenage daughters in his life, Amit felt the pull to take part. He wanted his firm to get involved, but he knew whatever they made would be controversial, designing it would be uncomfortable, and perhaps most of all, they could just get it terribly wrong. The lines between good intention and Valley hubris can be blurry in the most sincere of circumstances.
“It was very easy for us to sit pretty on the perch and do nothing, and say there is no role for technology in this story of preventing sexual assaults,” says Amit, “but for me, the moment we saw there was a way to get a [skin] blood alcohol sensor, and that alcohol is so strongly correlated with a sexual assault, it became really imperative to do something.”
A full two months later, Amit decided to take the brief. He knew, however, that NDD couldn’t play by its normal game plan when building this device. His designers were going to need to analyze sexual consent and assault as a design thinking problem. They’d need to be honest and critical, in ways that could easily offend one another if they weren’t in the same mind-set. So Amit and the director of technology design services Julie Connors began planning it out in 1:1 meetings.
“We ended up having a different set of rules for this project team on how we interact together,” says Connors. “We removed any personal aspects to it–any personal sharing of stories was not done. Stories were abstracted. We didn’t want to get emotional in a way that might spiral out of creativity. And we wanted to share the emotions together as a team rather than as individuals.”
In a more concrete sense, the design team signed an agreement to willingly engage in the project, in which they were also encouraged to share any discomfort that arose. They were also asked to keep the details of the project between team members only. And the “war room”–or project room–was open only to the NDD designers working on the project. While most of the studio’s projects have an open door policy that encourages casual critiques from across the office, they knew that approach couldn’t work here. Without a strong understanding of context, people could become seriously offended.
For instance, the design team actually graphed out several scenarios of how romances might escalate–looking how body language, a nervous touch, a kiss, or oral sex formed an almost culturally choreographed “dance” to lead to sex. How did people know they had consent? How did they know to back off? Were there times when the communication wasn’t clear?
“We used Aziz Ansari as an [example] case,” says design lead Ben Wong, alluding to how the same sexual encounter might look different from each side of it. The team went so far as to chart out encounters on graph paper–which they held up on the teleconferencing system for me to see. And it was from these scenarios that they realized there were moments for intervention with the right tool.
Building the product
Over a few months, NDD designed the band you see here. It’s made from two electronic pebbles–one on the top of the wrist for the LED interface, and one on the bottom to measure BAC. That keeps the design thin. The outer body is a soft cloth weave.
“With this mesh, we get some of the skin coming through the device, as a metaphor, some of you is showing through the band,” says Tony Smith, industrial design lead. “Functionally, that mesh keeps it lightweight and breathable, something you’d be comfortable wearing all day long.”
The band isn’t designed to be beautiful or ostentatious, but it is meant to be noticeable, like a Livestrong bracelet. Ideally, the Buzz would be a shorthand for being a respectful human being who values consent. Lang hopes it would be cool to wear as a result, like a status symbol that denotes progressive values. And it would be a reminder to anyone in the room that they should live up to those ideals, too.
When I discussed the general idea of a wearable that prevents sexual assault by Hannah Brancato, cofounder of the activist group FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture, she’s more than a little skeptical. “I do not think this technology will meaningfully decrease the rates of sexual assault in the long run, because the issue is not just about alcohol. Rape is not happening because people are drinking too much. It happens because people feel entitled to other people’s bodies, and our overall misunderstanding of sex is that you should take whatever you can get,” she says. “At this point, we need to learn [to] hear one another and understand that we are never entitled to another person’s body. Consent means that people have complete control over their own bodies and can decide what they do or do not want. Consent is ongoing and ever-changing. Consent must be enthusiastic. In all of these ways, it is about communication, and deeply held beliefs about sex.”
To be fair to the team behind Buzz, they did acknowledge all of these points when walking me through the development brief. Whether it will be successful or not at the task, Buzz is trying to mix quiet technological safeguards with Livestrong-style clan branding. It’s trying to create a social movement rather than a sex contract and sobriety test.
In a world where all the stars align, where the marketing is done just right on college campuses, maybe something like Buzz could catch fire like Tinder. My main question was about its efficacy. I wondered, would people who were meeting each other at a bar really pair? When does that moment happen in a true, spontaneous interaction? Does pairing create an expectation that a harmless flirtation could or should mean more? Could someone feel pressured to pair, and suddenly find themselves on an unwanted date? (Even though, with a shake of the wrist, I was told that you can unpair.) Most of all, does Buzz address the person in your life most likely to be the sexual assaulter–not a boyfriend, or even a friend, but a friend of a friend, an acquaintance? No one in your friendship circle might even know them, and would they be willing to wear a Buzz?
Lang acknowledges the last issue. “The fact still exists, if she is wearing one, he sees that she is. And if we succeed, he’ll be aware that there are four to five other pairs of eyes are watching that woman that evening. That unto itself could be a deterrent. Whether there’s a bump moment or not, she’s already ahead of where she would currently be,” says Lang. “What girls have tried to do is create communities like this with the dedicated driver or texting. It’s awkward. You have to be checking your phone all the time. This allows something to be done passively. You put the band on. You’ve designated your circle of girls, and you’re keeping an eye on each other.”
“I’ll be blunt. There’s been a constant discussion: Are we inventing a digital chastity belt or something like that?,” Amit says. “And frankly, I could tell you, I feel we didn’t. I feel we have a good solution–I think it’s something that’s definitely plausible.”
The Buzz is planned for release in 2019. Lang and Kramer hope to distribute the device freely, while relying upon a $1/month subscription fee to create revenue. They’re also open to partnerships, and they see potential in places like the alcohol industry to subsidize their efforts. Just how Buzz handles user data is still something being mulled, but the team is leaning toward a self-destructive model, which might purge user data after 24 hours. Decisions like that will be key for the platform to catch on.
“What we don’t want to be is the police in the bedroom,” says Lang. “This is the point in people’s lives where they’re out there [for the first time], and we don’t want to be the rain on the parade. We want to create a supportive environment where everyone can have a fun time.”