TU Delft students develop key to counter smartphone addiction

Unpluq, a physical-digital key designed to help reduce smartphone addiction, launched on the market by the end of last October. The Dutch startup was created by two TU Delft students who wanted to find a way to spend less time on their phones. The result is a little USB-C stick that locks and unlocks access to the most time-consuming apps on the user’s phone, according to individual needs. Amidst growing awareness of the “Attention Economy” pervasiveness, which promotes technology addiction, and its potential threats to mental health, Unpluq claims that its product can help decrease smartphone use by 25% on average, asserting that “you should control technology, instead of technology controlling you.”

The startup’s history goes back to the student times of co-founders Tim Smits (production design and hardware) and Jorn Rigter (production design and software), who found that their smartphone use was taking precious time off their studies. When taking a course on entrepreneurship, they decided to tackle the problem of smartphone distraction. That initiative became Unpluq, which launched on crowdfunding platform Kickstarter in February to reach €10.000 in funding. From the working prototype they had at the beginning of the year, they have scaled up to mass production in a few months, and the product has now been available for a few weeks, for €29.95. As reported by De Volkskrant, Smits and Rigter expect to sell 10.000 Unpluq sticks by the end of the year, and have set an even higher bar of 100.000 sales in 2021.

The defining characteristic of Unpluq is the conjunction of the software and a physical USB-C stick that acts as the key to lock and unlock access. In other words, a user-defined set of distracting apps can only be accessible with the stick plugged into the smartphone charging port, and the user can choose whether to leave the stick at home, in their car or backpack, or carry it around on a keychain. Thus, gaining access to addicting software like social media, dating apps and news feeds requires the conscious physical choice of inserting the key and “opening the door.” For the time being, Unpluq works only on Android devices, due to iPhone’s restrictions on third-party software modifying the home screen. But the company is already working on an iOS version to be released later on.

This is one possible solution to a problem that, although very recent, is already a big part of our lives. Smartphone addiction, and its related problems of declining productivity, distraction and overall mental health can be noticeable in our own daily lives. After all, who of us hasn’t noticed an increased dependence on mobile phones with corresponding distraction levels? This is an intrinsic part of an the “Attention Economy”, in which the product to be commercialized is the attention of users, most efficiently harvested by making apps and gadgets increasingly addicting and engaging. One result is a toll on the mental health of smartphone users, specially in younger demographics. Research published in the BMC Psychiatry Journal in 2019 found that 23% of young people have problematic smartphone usage, which can be linked to depression, anxiety, stress, poor sleep quality and overall lower productivity and educational attainment. In the Netherlands, according to a report on global mobile consumer trends by Deloitte, in 2017 80% of the population owned a smartphone; 20% of them checked it more than 50 times a day, and more than 30% checked it within the first 5 minutes of waking up.

Corresponding to this growing problem, a market for distraction-free-experience apps and devices is opening up. Unpluq stands on a middle ground between software-oriented solutions, like the time and wellbeing setting options already preinstalled in smartphones and available through various apps; and hardware-oriented solutions like minimalist phones with just-essential functionality or physical devices that control access to the smartphone, like safeboxes with timers. Thus, the Delft-based company is betting on a locking solution that is neither too easy to solve, nor too hard to circumvent. It remains to be seen whether it is an appealing one, among all the others options, for people struggling with smartphone addiction.

Written by Juan Alvarez