Interview with the creators of Slightly Robot

Tasneem Abrahams
Oct 26th, 2016

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Last month we shared a video about a technology product called Slightly Robot, a device that tracks your hands and vibrates each time you do certain movements. We think this is a great device for developing awareness, an important aspect of Habit Reversal Training (HRT) in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). The founders and creators of Slightly robot, Matthew and Joseph Toles graciously took the time to answer some of our questions about Slightly Robot. This is what they had to say:

What is Slightly Robot? 

Legally speaking, Slightly Robot is a limited liability company whose headquarters happens to be located in our Seattle apartment’s kitchen. Philosophically speaking, SR is the logical result of nerds’ attempts to solve their own head problems. The aptly named Slightly Robot Bracelet is a position tracking bracelet designed to increase self-awareness and personal accountability in people with body focused repetitive behaviors. Devised with compulsive hair pulling or skin picking in mind, the bracelets use an accelerometer to determine the position of the hand. After a user calibrates the bracelet to recognize their personal pulling or picking position, the bracelet will vibrate any time the hand returns to that position. This makes the user aware of any automatic (unconscious) pulling or picking. Since it is basically impossible to quit something you don’t realize, the first step in habit reversal must be learning to notice the problem.

However, not all repetitive behaviors are automatic. Many people are fully aware of their repetitive behaviors. For these people, the bracelet does not need to provide awareness, but motivation to continue the fight, hope for a better tomorrow, and a basis of personal, numerical progress. The bracelet records each repetitive behavior in a database, allowing users to see how they are doing. Not only does this show the effectiveness of the Slightly Robot Bracelet itself, this can also be used to validate traditional treatments like therapy or medication, which often work slowly and show different results on different people.

To us, Slightly Robot is an ambitious project that has been more than worth the last year or so of our lives. For some of our users, though, it has changed their lives. Recently, someone on a forum called it “The only thing that has ever worked,” for them, which is more than we ever expected when we first set out.

What is the back story? Why did you create this device? 

We started this project really kind of selfishly to fix our own problems. Joseph has bit his nails for as long as he can remember and I have excoriation disorder. Once we realized we could build the device for our own problems, we started researching other mental disorder. Though the technology could be applied to monitoring a lot of involuntary motor disorders such as Parkinson’s or Tourette’s, we picked BFRBs since they were the most similar to our own conditions, meaning we already had a pretty good idea of what would help and what wouldn’t.

The name follows. We basically tried to fix ourselves with machines we built. We’re far from C-3PO, but we kind of revel in the fact that we can modify our semi-conscious behaviors with a tiny computer on our wrist. We’re a little closer to being machines than we were before, hence, Slightly Robot.

What were some of your biggest challenges and successes to date? 

Hahah, it’s been an adventure for sure. We started this project with nothing. Not a cent of investment, no equipment, and barely enough experience to keep from burning our apartment down (though we have come close).

Compared to software, hardware is difficult and expensive to build, which is why we first built essentially the same device for Android Wear. They’re basically the same thing as our bracelets, but more expensive and with more features. We figured we would give the smartwatch app away for free as community service, more or less. We weren’t really planning on even charging money for it. The Android Wear app is still available and free on Google Play

We soon found out, however, that people liked the app a lot more than they liked smartwatches. They’re too expensive. They look silly. So nobody used it because they didn’t want a smartwatch. That’s how we got to building our own bracelets.

This is of course far easier said than done. We don’t have a factory or enough capital to hire one, so we make the bracelets ourselves. In our kitchen. We cure the thermoset polymer encasing in our kitchen oven. We shape the steel with a hammer. It sounds ridiculous to do things like this in the 21st century, but it’s the only way we can with so few resources. We write iPhone apps, yet we have one partially functional obsolete iPhone between us. For a long time we didn’t even have a hammer, and we still don’t have a printer.

We’ve had wonderful experiences with our users. It’s pretty unusually to run a company with only two people, so people are sometimes surprised that when they ask for tech support, they get the guy who programmed the entire device or the guy who physically built it. The community has been amazing. We’ve had people from around the world giving us tips and new features, introducing us to people, helping us fix bugs (of which there have been many). We’ve had people write reviews so positive that the internet accused us of writing them ourselves. It feels good.

The BFRB community has been wonderful, but outside it’s been difficult to convey how important this kind of work is. BFRBs are extraordinarily unrecognized among the general population and it can be pretty hard to even explain what we’re doing to, for example, investors, let alone convince them that it can be financially sustainable. But this is a problem for the entire BFRB community, not just us. We’re in the dark. Until the rest of the world grasps the scope of BFRBs, we should expect the best innovation and support to come from within the community.

What are the notable competitors of Slightly Robot and how do they compare in terms of accuracy?

Only Habitaware, though they won't be shipping until January at the earliest, according to their site. So nobody yet. Theirs is not released yet and no data has been published, so this is currently unknowable.

Do you plan to support pebble?

We do not yet have a timeline for pebble but haven't ruled it out. There's only two of us, so please give us time. After adding features on the Bracelet we'd like to do Apple Watch next since it seems relatively popular.

Can you shed some light on the technical design of the bracelet? 

The fact that we are building it in our home suggests that others might be able to as well, though it also took two of us months of work full time, so it's definitely not easy! The software is probably the most challenging part. The bracelet consists of a circuit board equipped with an accelerometer and bluetooth transmitter, and all the trappings to protect it and attach that to a wrist. 

What is your vision for Slightly Robot? 

This is a good question. We didn’t start this project intending to build an empire or anything. We really just want to help people and we think we’ve come up with a reasonably good way to do it. The trick, however, is figuring out how to help as many people as possible. Maybe that means bringing the price down as low as possible. Maybe that means integrating the device into traditional therapy. We’ve got some high tech ideas of our own, but the best ideas seem to come from our users. They know what they need. If you ask for something, we will try to build it.

Tell us a little about Matthew and Joseph.Wwhat are your passions and personal aspirations?

At Slightly Robot, Joseph is the Chief Technical Officer, which basically means he programs all the devices, plans the software, and wrote both the Android, iPhone, and Android Wear apps. He also provides tech support for any device we sell.

Joseph is a physicist-turned-software developer with an additional degree in mathematics. In a past life, he built particle colliders at the University of Washington, recently spent six months traveling China and previously vagabonded around the western U.S., performing magic on the Las Vegas strip. In his spare time, Joseph enjoys weight lifting and Chinese calligraphy. One day Joseph would like to start a local newspaper. He is 24.

Matthew is the CEO, which, in a two person company, means doing anything to free up the programmer to write more code, such as answering these questions here. I also do the physical engineering, design, and building of the bracelets.

Matthew briefly designed experimental attack helicopters before finishing school and starting Slightly Robot (simultaneously). He has previously done community development in northern Guatemala with Engineers Without Borders, and currently runs an engineering team testing experimental polio surveillance devices in six countries around the world. He spends his free time beatboxing and playing guitar. He is 22.

As brothers and knowing each other so well, I think we have a huge advantage. We have the same vision. We trust each other. Sometimes we will have spontaneous business meetings in our pajamas because we’re both getting a midnight snack, and that’s where some of our best ideas come from. 

From the BFRB Community For the BFRB Community

It is evident that these two young men are dynamic, motivated, intelligent individuals who also both happen to engage in a body focused repetitive behavior. Thank you to Matthew and Joseph for taking the time to share insights into their journey with us. If you have any more questions you can reach them via the information in their website contact page or via their facebook page.

Tasneem Abrahams

Tasneem is an Occupational Therapist, and a graduate of the TLC foundation for BFRBs professional training institute. Her experience in mental health includes working at Lentegeur Psychiatric hospital forensic unit (South Africa), Kingston Community Adult Learning Disability team (UK), Clinical Specialist for the Oasis Project Spelthorne Community Mental Health team (UK). Tasneem is a member of both the editorial team and the clinical staff on Skinpick, providing online therapy for people who suffer from excoriation (skin picking) disorder.

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