Meet the MIT startup that’s building the Nest for your wrist

A prototype of the thermoelectric bracelet built by Embr Labs.
A prototype of the thermoelectric bracelet built by Embr Labs.

Legions of office workers struggle daily with the Goldilocks problem: Their workspace is too hot. Their workspace is too cold. It’s never just right.

Embr Labs, a startup spun out of MIT, hopes to make the average worker ant more comfortable in their cubicle. Their solution is a “thermoelectric bracelet” called the Wristify that straps onto your wrist and heats your skin. 

Pilot testers have described the effect as “a cup of tea on your wrist or a cat nuzzling up against you,” says co-founder Sam Shames. And users needn’t just be office workers. Hikers on snowy peaks, athletes in summer — anyone who is hotter or colder than they want to be — could find the device useful, the company says.

The difference between this device and an icepack or a pair of battery-heated thermal gloves is that you will very precisely control how hot or how cool you want to be. After all, Shames says, “Thermal is personal.” Which also happens to be the company’s motto.

An artist's concept design for a sleeker Wristify.

An artist’s concept design for a sleeker Wristify. Credit: Embr Labs

Embr Labs has its high-tech origins at MIT’s annual summer contest for materials science engineers, picking up the top prize and $10,000 in winnings last fall. Just a year later, Embr Labs is riding high.

The team spent the summer at MIT’s Global Founders Skills Accelerator. Then Intel selected Embr Labs as a finalist in the global Make It Wearable challenge. The startup won $50,000 to develop its Wristify prototypes and will present its device at the finals in November, alongside the makers of a wrist-worn drone and a company that’s building a budget bionic hand.

In 2015, Embr Labs hopes to crowdfund the final version of the device.

Inside Wristify is tech that uses “thermal waves” to keep you comfortable. If you spend some time holding a cup of warm coffee, your skin gradually stops registering the feeling of heat.

So rather than turning on and staying on, Wristify cycles up to the right temperature very rapidly, heating or cooling your skin in pulses. The device, which currently runs on a battery, uses as much power as a camera flash, Shames says.

Because the wrist is rich with blood-flow, it’s a great place to strap on a thermostat. But testers have happily pressed it to their necks and their temples.

I visited Embr Labs’ suite at the Industry Labs space in Inman Square and tried a prototype for myself, alternately chilling and warming my wrist. It felt like someone had strapped a warmed massage stone to my hand, which felt great — but my the test was too short to trick the rest of my body into feeling more comfortable. Still, as a long-time sufferer of Boston winters, I’d be glad for a chance to test the device while running outdoors in the cold.

This thermal wave concept is common in industrial systems, but Embr Labs claims to be the first to make a wearable device that uses the technique.

One day, you’ll be able to set the temperature from an app on your phone, the company says. For now, Embr Labs’ field test prototypes have a dial that lets wearers adjust the target temperature.

Embr Labs realizes that a sleek form will be key to Wristify’s success and is working with Plus Fabrication, a Cambridge design firm, to refine the design.

“Now we have a [version] that doesn’t look like a thing out of Star Wars,” Shames says.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
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