Monday, June 11, 2001

Kevin Polk takes his SunViz invention to the beach.

Spurn the burn

'Lobster' days may be over now
that an inventor has come up with a
way to calculate sunburn risk on a PDA

By Shawn 'Speedy' Lopes

FOR sun worshippers who enjoy sultry Hawaiian summers but cringe at the very thought of messy sunscreens, here's a preventative application of a different kind: Last month, Honolulu- based Zerpec, Inc., released SunViz, which it touts as "the first ever handheld sunburn calculator" for Palm OS devices.

"It came about as an accumulation of a lifetime of frustration with sunburn," explained Zerpec President and SunViz (rhymes with eyes) inventor Kevin Polk, whose company seeks to "create paradigm-shattering apps for daily life," although he seems to have created SunViz for himself first.

"I grew up in Hawaii and I burn very easily. I'd seen only light references to methods that would allow someone to calculate sunburn risk, but these were often explained in terms that meant very little to most people."

The PDA program allows users to calculate their sunburn
risk in 144 cities. World travelers can also plug in the
longitude and latitude of cities that aren't listed.

Polk, who is active in running, swimming and bodysurfing, said he could never find a way to accurately predict his exposure to the sun, and ended up getting burned at least once a month.

Through local weather and satellite observations, forecasters rely on what is known as the UV Index to determine risks from ultraviolet light. Those with Internet access can log onto the National Weather Service Ultraviolet Index Web site at to find out the UV levels on a particular day.

The index ranges from 0, meaning minimal danger to 10+, or very high. A UVI reading of 10 means that the sun-sensitive would burn in 10 minutes or less at noon.

On Saturday, the UV Index rating in Honolulu was 11, according to the Web site. SunViz's reading for that day was a more cautious 12 to 16, when factoring in a surrounding of asphalt.

Travelers can get readings in 144 cities, and if a particular city isn't listed, you can manually insert the latitude and longitude figures.

SunViz information uses historical data that may differ by 10 percent depending on certain climate conditions such as ozone cover, cloud cover and haze levels.

The hand icon in the upper left corner of his Visor warns
Polk that he would burn in 24 minutes if he stepped out
of his house at 11:52 a.m. A smiling sun would
indicate safe sun.

"There are things you don't learn in the weather report that will affect you on an individual level," Polk said.

Such factors include skin sensitivity, location, time of day, whether you are in the shade or not, and the SPF (sun protection factor) of your sunscreen. By utilizing the UV Index and plugging in such information as whether you are standing on grass or asphalt, and whether it is a clear or hazy day, SunViz eliminates guesswork.

"I use it to plan my workouts. It turns out I'm generally safe after 4:30 p.m., even in the summer. It's proven to be very useful to me."

In doing his research, Polk dispells some notions about conditions that lead to sunburns. He said that while fog, haze or vog and reduce sunburn risk slightly, those who go out thinking they're safeunder shade actually are at risk.

Dust particles in haze or vog actually scatters light, so Polk said, "You'd burn faster under a beach umbrella in heavy haze than on a clear day."

SunViz can be useful to those who are subject to prolonged exposure to the sun's damaging rays and acts as a high- tech counterforce to such dreaded exposure risks as age spots, cataracts and skin cancer. Parents may also use it to calculate sunburn risk for their children during outdoor gatherings.

"It's definitely a unique medium," he says. "It turned out to be one big form of pain relief. Before, it was easy to leave the house without sunscreen, thinking I'd be out only a few minutes. Now I know exactly how many minutes I have."

To demonstrate the speed of SunViz, Polk offered a real-time demonstration. Clicking on a sun icon and making note of the day's heavy cloud cover, he announces, "I'm safe now. But on a sunny day at this time, I'd burn in 24 minutes."

Sunscreen apparently makes a huge difference. At 3:11 p.m. Saturday, he could stay out only until 3:36 p.m. with no sunscreen. With an SPF 8 sunscreen, SunViz reported that he'd be safe until sundown, adding the bit of advice, "Apply well!"

At $19.95 for the program, (cheaper than many high end sunscreens), SunViz could be a worthwhile investment for many this summer.

According to Polk, more than 500 prospective users have downloaded a free trial version of SunViz since its debut several weeks ago.The 30-day trial version, which possesses all the features of the official version can be downloaded at either or

The program rated a high five cows on, a site that rates programs available for PDAs or personal digital assistants.

Of course, the non-techies can still look up, squint at the sky and make sure to have some burn-relief lotion waiting in the medicine cabinet.

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