Technology & Science·Q&A

Distracted by your smartphone? Lock it up, say DistractaGone developers

Smartphones can be distracting. But a pair of designers in Amsterdam think they have the solution in DistractaGone. As CBC Radio technology columnist Dan Misener explains, it promises to help you "find focus fast."

Users can put phones in timed lockbox — but what does this say about our self-control?

The DistractaGone, whose developers are raising funds on Kickstarter, aims to curb the distraction of smartphones by encouraging users to seal them away in a timed lockbox. (DistractaGone/Kickstarter.com)

Smartphones can be distracting. But is literally locking them away the solution?

A pair of designers in Amsterdam think so.

They're developing a device they call DistractaGone — and as CBC Radio technology columnist Dan Misener explains, it promises to help you "find focus fast."

What is DistractaGone?

Essentially, it's a lockbox with a digital timer. According to its Dutch developers, DistractaGone is designed to help solve the problem of "smartphone addiction" (their words, not mine).

It's large enough to hold up to four smartphones. You put your phone (or phones) into the box and set the timer, which has a maximum of 24 hours.

They're crowdfunding the device on Kickstarter, where they've raised more than €28,000 ($41,000 Cdn).

But what makes this really interesting is its approach to the issue of digital distraction — and what the existence of DistractaGone says about willpower and self-control in the digital age.

Who is this meant for?

Ingmar Larsen is the developer of the NoPhone and co-developer of DistractaGone, a lockbox intended to curb smartphone distraction. (Ingmar Larsen/Twitter)
Ingmar Larsen, one of the co-developers, said he imagines it being used by all sorts of people, in lots of situations where being rid of the distraction of a smartphone might be beneficial.

"It can be parents with kids, it can be individuals, it can be used during business meetings, or [in] restaurants where people can have social conversations, or [by] people that drive in cars," he said.

Larsen said if you get a phone call or a notification while your device is in the box, it'll still ring or buzz. DistractaGone doesn't block wireless signals, but it blocks your access to the device.

Have we seen other examples?

Yes — in fact, a company called Yondr already sells locking phone pouches to artists and venues. The idea is that if you're going to a concert or a performance, you should be focused on experiencing the moment — not documenting or broadcasting it. 

So Yondr lets venues create "phone-free" zones. Before you enter the venue, your phone is placed in a locking pouch that you keep. When you enter the phone-free zone, the pouch locks — via a process one journalist said "seems similar to those anti-theft tags you find on clothes in department stores." If you need to make a call, you leave the phone-free zone.

It's a similar idea to DistractaGone, and it's reportedly been used by comedians like Dave Chappelle and Louis C.K., and by musicians like Alicia Keys and the Lumineers. This past July, Yondr said its locking pouches were used at about 30 concerts a week.

What does this say about us?

Larsen has some thoughts on that, and it's certainly an area of interest for him. He's also the co-founder of something called the NoPhone, which is marketed as  a "fake phone for people who are addicted to real phones."

It's basically a flat rectangle of plastic, about the size of a smartphone. It feels like a smartphone in your hand, but it doesn't do anything.

Designed to resemble the look and feel of a smartphone, Ingmar Larsen's NoPhone is marketed as 'a fake phone for people who are addicted to real phones.' (IngmarWorks.com)
He sells it online for $10 US — and he has mixed feeling about the fact people are buying it. 

"It's a bit sad that people need these kind of things," he said. "But on the other hand, it's good there are people thinking of these kind of things."

What's next?

If Larsen and his co-developers meet their Kickstarter goal by its Oct. 19 deadline, the plan is to ship the first DistractaGones early next year.

And how we use our phones — and handle the distraction they cause — is only going to become more of an issue as we go on. According to Media Technology Monitor's 2016 report, 78 per cent of English-speaking Canadian adults use smartphones.

For some context, a 2015 survey by Deloitte said Americans between 18 and 24 check their phones an average of 74 times per day. A 2014 U.K. survey by Tecmark placed that number even higher, claiming users perform 221 tasks per day on their smartphones. 

And a 2015 Pew Research Center report found 46 per cent of Americans say their smartphone is something "they couldn't live without."

So on one hand, it's not surprising to see products like DistractaGone enter the market. 

But the perceived need for such devices might have more to do with our fundamental challenges of self-control and willpower than with the technology.

About the Author

Dan Misener

CBC Radio technology columnist

Dan Misener is a technology journalist for CBC radio and CBCNews.ca. Find him on Twitter @misener.