The motion sickness wearable Reliefband changed my life back in 2016, making me able to comfortably ride in cars, planes, and boats without sleep-inducing motion sickness drugs. There’s no arguing that the wearable works amazingly well for me, someone who is severely susceptible to motion sickness.
There was also no arguing that generation one is not the most attractive design. It resembles something my kid got as part of a secret agent spy kit when he was six. Or like a toy compass from a cereal box.
And indeed, after just over a year of use, the plastic case started cracking. A replacement unit had a battery door that just wouldn’t close. I solved both problems with duct tape; it wasn’t pretty, but I wasn’t giving up this gadget I’d come to rely on. Instead, I tucked my sleeve over it to hide it as much as possible, and wore it only as long as I had to.
Back in 2016, the company promised that it was in the midst of a redesign, and would be shipping a much sleeker and more functional band by the end of that year. It took a little longer than that, but now Reliefband has finally rolled out generation 2.0.
But while Reliefband 2.0 is now my band of choice, it’s not superior in every respect to the original version.
Before we get into why, here’s a quick refresher on the basic operating principle of both the old and new bands. They work by emitting electric pulses; carefully positioned contact plates on the device send those pulses tingling up the middle couple of fingers. These intermittent pulses work to block the neurological signals that trigger motion sickness. The electric jolts have to be spaced carefully, company reps told me. Not frequent enough, and they won’t do the job. Too frequent, and they’ll make the nerves insensitive to them.
As someone who gets motion sickness essentially anytime I’m in a car and not in the driver’s seat, I can attest that my original Reliefband works brilliantly. Only once in my two years of using it has it failed—and even then, it helped me recover quickly.
Reliefband 2.0 solves some of its issues, but creates new ones.
First, the look: Version 2.0 is much more attractive. The bulky part of the gadget, containing the battery and electronics, has been moved to the top, so it looks like a smart watch or bulked up fitness band. Only the metal contacts wrap to the inside of the wrist. (The previous generation had to be worn with the entire gadget seated on the inside of the wrist. But there’s a reason most people don’t wear watches like that: You bump it constantly.)
The author’s original Reliefband after more than year of use, slightly cracked but still working. Reliefband 2.0 (photo at top of post) appears to be far more durable.Photo: Tekla Perry
I no longer was self-conscious while wearing the band, wondering if it would attract questioning looks. So, I was willing to leave it on for extended periods, such as during long airline flights, just in case the skies turned turbulent. I assumed when I was fiddling with the controls people would just think I was checking my watch or responding to a text message—no one ever asked. It’s part of a geek stack on my left wrist that includes my Fitbit, a small analog watch that I just can’t seem to give up, and a just-in-case hair tie.
Then there’s the fit: Unfortunately, it’s now only so-so. Version 2.0 is definitely not designed for my slim wrist. It comes in only one size, and that size is BIG. This means the edges protrude and catch on things. It also impinges on the device’s functionality, making it hard to adjust the band properly and line the contacts up with the correct spot on my wrist. After many, many, attempts, I discovered that the only way to make it work is to wear it backwards (with the controls towards my shoulder instead of my fingers). This makes those buttons harder to reach however, and adjustments counterintuitive (the “up” button is down and vice versa). Had I not had experience with the previous model, I might have left it positioned incorrectly and missed out on the benefits.
The controls: Despite them being upside down on my wrist, I can say they are now a little better. The original Reliefband had one button; each push advanced the intensity of the pulses from “off,” through the maximum level of five, and then back to off. Reliefband 2.0 has two buttons: One doubles as the on/off button and ratchets intensity down; the other ratchets the intensity up. There’s a finer division of intensities (nine instead of five), and I appreciate having more options. But turning the gadget off is a challenge. It requires a long push and hold while watching for a little “N” to flick on and then off. It’s not complicated, but it’s hard to see in bright light. A number of times, in spite of how careful I’ve been, I’ve found that I somehow failed to do this properly. I also found out the hard way that plugging the gadget into the charger turns it on automatically; it has to be turned off manually when done charging. Not intuitive.
Battery life: It’s okay. I’ve never had it run out of charge in normal use. A full charge of its internal rechargeable batteries lasts about 12 hours at the slightly higher than middle intensity I typically use. The device sends a low battery warning after 10 hours. But when I stored it, fully turned off, for a week or two, I found that the battery ran down to nothing—a disappointment. At least it does recharge quickly—in less than half an hour in my experience. The previous model used coin-cell batteries, which lasted for months, and could be replaced in seconds. So, I’m still packing the older version as a security blanket, just in case I inadvertently leave the new one on or forget to recharge it at the end of a day.
So the net net: If you just want to try the technology and see if it works for you, the original Reliefband is still on the market for under $100. If you have an average sized wrist, though, and plan to use the device on a regular basis, Reliefband 2.0, at $180, won’t make you look like a total geek.
As for me, I’ve mostly converted to version 2.0, but I’d be a lot happier if it came in a smaller size. And I would think there would be a huge market for one, given that children are particularly susceptible to motion sickness and their parents are likely eager to find non-drug alternatives.
Update 3 February 2022: The latest generation of Reliefband, the Reliefband Sport ($230), goes back to the form factor of the original Reliefband (still on the market at $130), with a few key tweaks. For one, it’s waterproof, not that it will do much good when you’re immersed in water (so it won’t help me while snorkeling, unfortunately). But for riding in a small boat, where big splashes are a concern, it’s a plus.
Photo: Tekla Perry
For me, however, the best new feature is the automatic shut-off. When the band detects that it is no longer making skin contact, it stops its pulses and goes into a waiting mode, after a minute, it turns itself off. I’ve regularly failed to turn the Reliefband 2.0 ($250) off properly—and even when I do, it tends to lose charge over time. The Reliefband Sport turns itself off and hangs onto its charge even when tucked in a drawer for a month.
On the downside, it does take longer to charge than its predecessor. And the center control button can be hard to push. Whether the case proves more durable over time than its first-generation twin remains to be seen.
And yes, six years later after Reliefband’s motion sickness wearables first made me far more willing to venture onto winding roads or rough seas, I’m still a huge fan.
Update 28 June 2023: Reliefband has updated its design once again, or actually reverted to some design features of the past. The “Flex” resembles the original version, albeit appearing slightly more streamlined and feeling more solid. And it goes back to using coin cell batteries instead of being rechargeable. (The company hasn’t discontinued the version that debuted as Reliefband 2.0, but says it has done some updates there, more on that in a moment.) So I had to ask company CEO Rich Ransom—why the bounce back, if that’s what this is?
Ransom was refreshingly frank about the mistakes made, struggles, and lessons learned in figuring out how to design this motion-sickness-preventing technology into a gadget that fits everyone, is comfortable, is durable, and doesn’t cause user frustration for any reason. Here’s what he had to say:
IEEE Spectrum: Before we talk about what’s new, let’s go back to the earlier models, which had some issues.
Rich Ransom: There was the original model, which we still sell and now call the Classic, and 2.0, which we now call Premier. Reliefband 2.0 did have buttons that fell apart; they were glued on. They are now molded with the device. There were other issues, people thought the device was off when it was in “mode zero,” now if it’s in mode zero for 60 seconds it turns off automatically. This one [2.0, now called Premier] is very discrete on the wrist, but it has some rigidity to it, so it doesn’t fit everyone, unlike the Classic [which has a flexible band].
In 2021, we made the Sport model in response to customer feedback. It looks more like the Classic but we redesigned the mold, now you can add a smart watch to the band so you don’t have to wear two things. We also made it rechargeable, waterproof, and if it’s not on your skin for 60 seconds it will turn off.
Now you’ve gone back to a coin-cell battery version, away from rechargeables.
Ransom: For the latest one, the Flex, we focused on battery life. Sure, we want it to be a cool tech product, but it actually is a therapeutic device, and that means it needs to be ready when you need it. We’ve done some redesign to reduce the power consumption and extend the life of the battery. It’s 350 hours now, in the earlier models with replaceable batteries it was 150. Like the Sport, you can share the band with a smart watch.
But it doesn’t turn off automatically?
Ransom: That’s something you end up paying for with the Sport, so we were considering that some of our customers are price sensitive. [Sport retails at $250; Flex retails at $180]
Any other design things you’ve considered?
Ransom: We’ve tried different colors; black and grey always win. We’ve also launched a low-cost 50-hour model [$100], with a sealed battery. It’s sold on some cruise ships, and in some CVS HealthHUBs, where it sits on the cancer care shelf [not next to the Dramamine].
What’s the future look like?
Ransom: We have a long way to go, though we’ve grown a lot. My goal is that every household would get one to keep on hand, like a thermometer, there’s someone in every house who can use one at some point, not just for travel and morning sickness, but for nausea from migraines, anxiety, and hangovers.
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.