The Embr Wave doesn't change users' actual temperature; instead, the product's creators say it alter our perception of heat and cold.

Credit: Howard Powell

Can We Personalize Temperature? A Cambridge Startup Says Yes

October 5, 2017

If your workplace is anything like mine, each day at the office is a variation on the Goldilocks theme. Some people are too hot; some are too cold; and almost no one thinks the temperature is just right.

But in a cramped, slightly stuffy work space near Inman Square, they're building a device that could shift that storyline.

"The Embr Wave," Embr Labs co-founder Sam Shames explains, "is all about letting you control how hot or how cold you feel by heating and cooling one part of your body, without changing your core temperature."  

As Shames tells it, the story of the Embr Wave, which looks a little bit like an Apple Watch, dates back to his childhood in a Boston suburb, featuring a mother who was always really, really cold.

"You can never keep the thermostat warm enough for her, and everyone else just had to live with that as a result," Shames says. "And so I think I was very aware, growing up, of the fact that people have very different temperature preferences."

So back in 2013, Shames and some other MIT students teamed up in an annual university competition and took a crack at solving that problem. 

"We kind of remembered, 'Oh, isn’t there this thing people do where they put an ice cube on their wrists or run their wrists under cold water when they’re too hot?'" Shames recalls. "And we said, 'What if we can make a bracelet that could do that, and it could actually cool down and warm up?'"  

Four years later, the Embr Wave has gone from an idea to a clunky prototype to a sleek product that’s backed by Bose and Intel — and just had a very successful Kickstarter launch. Shames and his colleagues had hoped to raise $100,000 in early purchases and pledges. Instead, they raised $450,000.

The design is pretty straightforward. On one side, there’s a heating and cooling plate; on the other, a thin, translucent control bar.

"You’ll see one side gets blue, one side gets red," Shames says as he offers a quick product demo. "And then now, I want to start cooling. I’m just going to press and hold the blue side, and I’m going to start to feel it cool down, and when I feel like the sensation level’s just right then I just let it go. I feel it’s ramped down to that cool sensation, and then it actually starts coming in waves." 

Right now, the marketing pitch is heavy on personal comfort. But David Cohen-Tanugi, another co-founder, says if enough people start using the Embr Wave, there could be bigger environmental benefits. 

"If you can expand the window of temperatures in which a thermostat doesn’t need to kick in, because it’s not warm enough to turn on the AC, it’s not cool enough to start the heater — if you can expand that by one degree, you’ll save the building’s energy consumption by about 10 percent," says Cohen-Tanugi. "Even if we could help people use their AC unit and their heating just a fraction of a degree less, the benefits for the world could be tremendous."

Of course, talking big is what startups do. But Douglas Casa — the CEO of UConn’s Korey Stringer Institute, which studies thermal regulation in athletes and soldiers — says he thinks the device has real potential.

"I’m extremely interested by it, even excited," he says.

Casa estimates that up to 90 percent of us feel some sort of dissatisfaction with the temperature around us, and adds that he's unaware of any other product intended to help people feel both colder and warmer.

That said, he’d like to see some hard data showing how the Embr Wave affects a number of different factors.   

"Your mood, your quality of work, your focus, your thermal sensation," Casa says. "Does it alter movement patterns you might have? For example, if you’re more comfortable, you might fidget less and do less things to compensate for your discomfort."

So far, information like that isn’t part of the Embr Wave PR push.

Shipments are slated to start next February, to people who paid an early-bird Kickstarter price of $179.

Full disclosure: the first prototype I tried out was a bit buggy, getting hot when I attempted to make it cold.

The next one worked like a charm, however. And for the next few minutes, the cramped, slightly stuffy Embr Labs office did feel a little bit cooler than it had before.


WGBH News is supported by:
Back to top