If you buy a shiny new fitness tracker, there's a fairly good chance it will end up forgotten in a drawer six months later. Maybe part of the problem is that it isn't cute enough. A new Tamagotchi-like device is based on the theory that if you really want to form a new habit, it helps if you feel an emotional connection to your technology.
"When you look at the research in wearables, there's a huge drop-off rate," says Kayla Matheus, founder of MOTi, a company making an adorable new gadget (named after the company) that is claimed to be able to help you form any habit. "Data alone isn't enough. We're human beings—we need more than that."
MOTI tracks behavior over time, like other devices, but it also acts like a small robotic friend: When you do something that you're trying to turn into a habit—whether that's running, making the bed, or cooking more—you push a button, and MOTI emits a series of happy sounds and lights. It's a simple action, but something the designer says can create an emotional bond.
"My first testers were two guys in their twenties and thirties, and they fell in love with these things," she says. "The vocabulary they used was interesting—they'd call it a he or a she, something you'd never do with a wearable. Early on, that's what triggered me to say, 'Hey, there's something here about an underlying emotional engagement.'"
Unlike an app, which can easily be ignored on a phone (or, after one too many annoying push notifications, deleted), the gadget is also meant to stay out on display, so it's a constant reminder of the habit you're trying to form. "It's like a symbolic manifestation of your goal that also happens to be cute," Matheus says.
One of her most recent testers used the device to build a habit to drink eight glasses of water a day. "He took MOTI and put it on his desk at work, because he tends to get stuck at his desk and forget to hydrate," she says. "Because it's a physical object, all of a sudden it becomes an environmental cue. Whenever he's typing at his computer, his eyes happen to flick over to MOTi, who's right there, and he'll be reminded."
Each time he drinks a glass of water, he pushes the button and the robot celebrates, while displaying how many glasses are left to go. Though it sounds like the kind of thing that could annoy coworkers, at least with this tester, the opposite happened.
"His coworkers actually know what his progress is," says Matheus. "He's told me stories of people who see him drinking water and he gets high-fives, because they know about his goal now. Or his coworker who sits next to him wants to push the button for him. There's this interesting social engagement that happens."
Unlike wearables, the device can be used to track any behavior, not just those that can be measured with an accelerometer. Matheus was inspired to create it because of her own struggles to keep on track with physical therapy after an ACL injury.
"I found myself having an incredibly hard time doing that 30-minute routine at home of stretching and leg lifts," she says. "It was frustrating, because in other areas of my life, I consider myself pretty motivated. I found from talking to friends that they have the same problem: They're successful in the careers and social lives, but something like getting to the gym or flossing regularly is frustrating."
She started studying the science of habit formation and realized that struggling with new habits is a universal problem. "It's something that's fundamentally human," she says. "There's a reason why only 8% of Americans are successful at their New Year's resolutions."
While fitness trackers and apps can work well if you have an established habit, the new device is designed to fill the missing gap of motivation. It can also connect with other wearables to track data over time. As behavior changes, MOTI evolves.
"It will basically learn what's normal for you," Matheus says. "If you start straying, then you're going to get prompted with a reminder. Rather than being a push notification you can easily wipe away, MOTI might get sad or angry." It learns what motivates you most—maybe a little angry buzzing does the trick—and then tailors responses based on whatever makes you act.
Matheus developed the prototype for MOTI as part of a team in Google's 30 Weeks program, an experimental incubator for designers. Now, as the program comes to a close, she's looking for 50 beta testers to try out the device. I'm going to try it to see if I can finally start running again.