Can a smart bracelet combat sexual assault on campus?

18 : 06 : 2018 Relationships : Sexual Health : Wearables
Buzz wearable by NewDealDesign Buzz wearable by NewDealDesign

It’s surely worrying when an entire bracelet and digital platform has to be created to prevent women from being sexually assaulted while they socialise.

Kathryn Bishop, deputy foresight editor, LS:N Global

Picture this: an interactive bracelet that measures your blood alcohol concentration on a night out and notifies you, your friends, and even your date about how much alcohol you’ve consumed. The more you drink, the more intensely it buzzes, glowing red as a warning sign, and even sending push notifications to your friends’ smartphones in case they need to intervene.

But this bracelet isn’t a drinking deterrent – it’s actually a device to lessen the risk of young women falling victim to sexual assault. And it’s due for launch in January 2019.

Given the name Buzz, this wearable device is the brainchild of Dr Jennifer Lang, an American obstetrician and gynaecologist, and Rob Kramer of Californian design studio New Deal Design. Created to counteract the rate of sexual assault taking place on US university campuses – something an estimated 28% of women say they have experienced as undergraduates – Buzz will be aimed at women friendship groups, but also men as secondary, supportive wearers.

Buzz’s creators have painstakingly analysed the many possible scenarios where sexual assault or questions of consent versus conceding could arise for young people.

So how does it work? In simple terms, the Buzz bracelet functions by reading the wearer’s blood alcohol levels through sensors that sit against their skin. Like a FitBit (another device of New Deal Design’s repertoire) it connects to an app on a wearer’s phone, tracking her state of being and notifying her the more she drinks.

But for me, this raises some red flags. We are aware that binge drinking is manifest among Westernised youth, but it’s surely worrying when an entire bracelet and digital platform has to be created to prevent women from being sexually assaulted while they socialise.

As young people start to shun the use of technology in dating, I wonder how Buzz will be received. If the wearer and her friends get constant notifications as they drink, Buzz could strip all spontaneity from their socialising. On the flipside, it could encourage users to take less personal responsibility for their drinking, becoming a digital safety net that allows them to push their limits in the knowledge someone else will look after them.

However, I have to applaud Buzz’s creators for its careful development. They have painstakingly analysed the many possible scenarios where sexual assault or questions of consent versus conceding could arise for young people. Furthermore, as Lang and Kramer recently told Fast Company, they were very aware that ‘whatever they made would be controversial, designing it would be uncomfortable, and perhaps most of all, they could get it terribly wrong’.

Buzz’s creators plan to approach major drinks companies to sponsor the production and distribution costs of the bracelets.

This awareness is redeeming, but so too is the fact that they are making Buzz accessible to young people. The bracelets will be given away for free upon launch, with just a $1 monthly subscription to access the supporting phone app.

What is more, Lang and Kramer recognise the opportunity for alcohol brands to transform from being blamed as part of the problem, to becoming part of the solution, with plans to approach major drinks companies to sponsor the production and distribution costs of the bracelets. Student bars and clubs could also become spaces that help to drive awareness and encourage the wearing of Buzz bracelets among young people – an important opportunity at a time when even bartenders are championing more moderate drinking.

So while it’s not ideal to imagine your daughter or younger sister wearing a Buzz bracelet on a night out, it does represent a level of maturity and accountability on behalf of the wearer. Lang and Kramer believe the bracelets will encourage young people to look out for one another and build more caring communities. And for non-wearers, seeing them on the wrist will impart an important message as to why they’re being worn – something that’s all too significant in the age of #MeToo.