Warm up or cool down with the press of a button on the wrist-worn Embr

I don’t know who’s in charge of the thermostat at Digital Trends headquarters, but based on how hot they like to keep it here, I’ve concluded that this person was most likely born and raised on surface of the Sun. I know this because no matter what season it is or what the weather happens to be like outside, the office is almost always kept at a balmy 5,778 Kelvin.

OK, so obviously that’s a bit of an exaggeration. To be completely honest, I have no clue what the exact temperature is — but I do know that if you engage in any activity that’s more strenuous than sitting at your desk and typing, you almost immediately break into a sweat. I seriously keep a spare towel and a stick of deodorant on hand just in case I ever need to tie my shoes, unplug my monitor, or sneeze more than twice in a row.

For the past few days, however, I haven’t been as bothered by the oppressively high temperatures of the office — and it’s all thanks to a nifty new gadget called the Embr Wave, which launched today on Kickstarter.

The Wave

Developed by a team of MIT grads over the last four years, the Wave is essentially a wearable heater and cooler that leverages quirks in human physiology to sort of “hack” how your body perceives temperature.

“It’s a product for people that are too hot or too cold, that offers thermal relief,” explains Embr Labs co-founder Sam Shames. “What it does is it heats and cools one spot on your body and helps you improve your comfort, without changing your core temp.”

Note that last part. It’s important to know that Wave doesn’t actually change how hot or cold your body is overall. Instead, it essentially tricks your body and brain into perceiving a slightly different temperature.

“It’s kind of similar to cupping your hands around a hot mug of coffee in the winter after you’ve come in from being outside in the cold, or dipping your toes in the ocean on a hot summer day,” says Shames. “So it doesn’t change your core temperature. It does change temperature of your wrist while you wear it, but it’s not so much ‘tricking your senses’ as it is your brain and body naturally responding to temperature change.”

As it turns out, changing the temperature of one part of your body can have a strong effect on how you feel overall. “What that illustrates is that there’s a lot more to the sensation of temperature, or the subjective experience of temperature, than people realize,” Shames says,  “and that’s really what we’re here to help people with.”

Under the hood

So how exactly does all this black magic actually work? It all comes down to a nifty physical phenomenon known as the Peltier Effect.

“There’s a lot more to the sensation of temperature, or the subjective experience of temperature, than people realize”

Named for French physicist Jean Charles Athanase Peltier who discovered it in 1834, The Peltier effect describes the phenomenon of heating or cooling caused by an electric current flowing across the junction of two different conductors. As the current moves from one conductor to another, the transfer of energy causes one side to heat up and the other to cool down. Embr Wave is basically a series of these junctions (called a Peltier cooler) powered by a small battery and attached to a wrist strap. When placed against the skin, the device makes you feel cooler by reducing the temperature of your wrist a few fractions of a degree per second for a couple seconds at a time.

That’s where the “wave” in Embr Wave comes from. Rather than providing a steady stream of heating or cooling, the device pulses with short waves of temperature fluctuation. It’s a bit counterintuitive, but according to Shames and his colleagues, this burst-based method is actually the most effective way to alter your perception of temperature and provide a sensation of thermal relief.

“That’s one of the most important features,” says Shames, “because if you think about our normal experience of temperature and what our bodies are designed to do, they’re designed to adapt. For example, if you walk into an air-conditioned room and it feels incredibly cold when you first get in there, but then two minutes later you’re like ‘it doesn’t feel as cold anymore!’ — that’s because humans are hardwired to adapt to temperature. What we’ve figured out is that by having the temperature come in waves — in other words having the sensation fade in and out — you basically overcome that natural adaptation.”

Cool in theory, cooler in practice

All this might sound like a load of pseudoscientific bull excrement, but Embr Labs’s technology is surprisingly effective. I’ve been wearing a Wave for the past few days, and despite the fact that it looks like an Apple-inspired house arrest bracelet, the device is undeniably pleasurable to use.

Truth be told, I was a bit underwhelmed when I first put it on. The cooling sensation isn’t particularly bold at first. It’s not like stepping into a walk-in freezer and getting hit with a shiver-inducing burst of temperature change, which is what I was (naively) hoping for as I hastily unboxed the review unit in the oppressive heat of my office. The feeling is much more subtle; like running your wrist under a cold tap, or moving your head to the cold side of your pillow. That’s not to say it’s not enjoyable — the sensation just isn’t as pronounced as you might expect.

Still, despite the fact that it doesn’t freeze the sweat on your brow at the push of a button, the Wave is a lovely thing to have on your wrist. I didn’t realize how soothing it is until I took it off for a few hours, then found myself craving that chilly sensation on my wrist. I dare say it’s mildly addictive.

At the end of the day, the Wave is really just a wearable device that offers pleasant sensations on demand, and that’s precisely what makes it so enticing. Not everyone wants a band that counts steps or a watch that can send texts — but a wrist-borne button that makes you feel good when you press it? Now that’s something everyone can get behind.

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