For the record:
2:42 p.m. June 22, 2023: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described seven9’s pot-filled pods. They are made primarily of recyclable aluminum, not plastic.
When it comes to focus-pulling, high-end, tabletop vaporizers (devices that heat — but don't combust — cannabis in order to release an inhalable THC vapor), the gold standard has long been Storz & Bickel's Volcano. It's a device that's easy to use, easy on the eyes and sociable (the vapor is delivered either via a hose and mouthpiece or large plastic bag, both of which can be passed around, while the unit stays put), and there haven't been many serious competitors in the space since the first Volcano hit the market 23 years ago.
I recently had the opportunity to kick the tires on a new gadget called the OOKA Ooka— a high-priced ($399), high-tech take on the traditional hookah-style water pipe — that might be the first vaporizer to challenge the Volcano's dominance.
A few minutes after getting my hands on the Ooka, I was smitten with everything the gadget had to offer. And then, a few minutes after that, I became angry (well, at least frustrated) at what it didn’t.
Let me explain on both fronts. First, the positives — and there are a lot of positives.
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For starters, this is a seriously good-looking piece of equipment. Designed by a former Dyson engineer, it somehow manages to be Apple-device sleek and Kardashian curvy at the same time, with a generously rounded clear glass bottom third that attaches to a delicately tapered upper part (available in black or white) that flares out again at the top to resemble the bowl of traditional hookah. A hose, attached about halfway up the side of the faintly teardrop shape, ends in a wand-like mouthpiece that can be twist-adjusted to control the amount of vapor being delivered.
Make no mistake — this is a gadget that doesn't just deserve to be on display, it begs to be the center of your attention.
Like any piece of new tech, there's definitely a learning curve involved with using the Ooka. Unlike a lot of tech (particularly cannabis tech), it's not a particularly steep one. During my introductory session at the Artist Tree Studio and Lounge in West Hollywood, I was up and running in about five minutes, which is how long the unit takes to heat up after it's switched on. A thin ring of pulsing amber light around the top means it's heating, solid amber means it's ready to rumble and red means you're finished.
And anyone who has had to deal with the smell of spilled bong water will be happy to know that the folks behind the Ooka have designed the device to turn off if it's accidentally knocked over to prevent spillage. (I'm taking the company’s word for it on this count. No hookahs were toppled in my presence.)
Because vaporizers heat (instead of burn) the plant material only to release the psychoactive ingredients, many consumers find these devices less irritating to the lungs. By marrying vape technology to a water pipe delivery system — essentially cooling the vapor — the Ooka is able to deliver hits that play nice with even the most thrashed lungs.
As someone whose first bong hit of any given sesh is often followed by a cough (thank you, college-era bong rips), there was a certain satisfaction in being able to exhale large, billowy clouds without the telltale tickle of an about-to-erupt bong cough. (And let's face it, hearing anyone cough — no matter the reason — can be kind of alarming these days.)
One of the features that makes this not just a conversation starter but also a genuine party starter isn't one you'll necessarily notice right away. In an effort to capture the sociability of a traditional hookah-smoking session (which uses charcoal to heat specially prepared tobacco and unfolds over about an hour), the Ooka employs some serious under-the-hood wizardry that allows a ganja gathering to proceed at a leisurely pace; serving up consistent clouds of vapor over the course of 45 to 60 minutes without having to repack, restart, refire or otherwise fiddle with it.
If you do want to break things up time-wise, there are two options: pausing things mid-sesh for up to 10 minutes at a time or simply turning it off and returning to the remaining minutes in another sitting. Using one gram of cannabis flower per session is enough to get a group of three or four weed heads plenty baked. (The Ooka folks say a hose-splitter — that can turn the single hose-and-wand into two — will be available for purchase soon.)
How do I know it's exactly one gram of cannabis flower per session, you ask? (I could've sworn I heard you ask.) The answer to that brings me to the one — just one — thing that keeps the Ooka from being a perfect piece of paraphernalia: Using it requires popping open the top and dropping in a special pot-filled aluminum pod that's available only through Ooka's cannabis brand partner seven9.
It's not the cost of the pods that bothers me (with an MSRP of $18 per one gram pod, it's not out of line with the pre-rolled joints and jarred flower available in SoCal dispensaries). Nor is it an issue of availability that chaps my hide; at launch, $36 two-packs of the pods were available direct-to-consumer through the getooka.com website with free same-day or next-day delivery (in the L.A., Orange County, Inland Empire and San Diego metro areas) as well as via the Highway Cannabis dispensary in Marina Del Rey and Illa Canna in L.A's West Adams neighborhood.
It's not even a matter of variety; at launch, the pods are available in five different labeled-by-effect pods ("Just Vibe," "Happy Hour," "Get Zen," "Zone In" and "No Worries") filled with Northern California-sourced flower and added terpenes (terpenes are the naturally occurring volatile compounds that give different cannabis plants their distinct smell and taste) in a range of THC percentages.
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What makes me reluctant to go all-in with the Ooka's pod ecosystem is that a user's cannabis-consuming options are limited to the flower that seven9 decides to pack into those pods. To me, that runs counter to the greater communal aspect of weed. Why? Because if one of your baking buddies happens to pop by with something new and exciting — maybe a cultivar they've recently discovered or some flower they've grown themselves — that high-tech hookah is as helpful as a $399 paperweight. Cannabis concentrate connoisseurs face the same conundrum (though the seven9 folks say concentrate pods are expected to be on offer sometime this year.)
That lack of flexibility in cannabis-consumption devices has long been one of my pet pot peeves, and Ooka is far from the first company (and undoubtedly won't be the last) to take this approach. Although it's a bigger issue in the vaporizer pen cartridge space (where some extracts are available in 510 thread screw-on cartridges and others in a bewildering array of device-specific pods), I've also felt the frustration in the flower space. One gadget that comes to mind is the Omura, a handheld vaporizer gadget that uses tiny pre-filled paper tubes called flowersticks. Another is the Beed, a joint-rolling robot that requires popping in proprietary pods of nitrogen-flushed ground flower.
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In the case of the Ooka, the capsules, which resemble the K-cup pods that pop into Keurig coffee makers, contain an NFC (Near Field Communication) chip that communicates with a chip reader-writer inside the water pipe itself.
As seven9's chief product officer, Robert Sindelar, the man behind the pod's design, tells it, the chip technology is designed to make sure that the herb is properly heated and that the Ooka delivers a consistent smoking experience from the first hit of an hour-long session to the last. Once the session has run its course, so has the pod, almost all of which can then be recycled. (The chip technology also means a DIY refilling-reusing hack is outside the skill set of all but the most advanced herbal enthusiasts.)
In an interview with The Times, Sindelar framed the proprietary pods — and the chip technology embedded in them — as a way of delivering a safe, sociable and consistent experience to cannabis consumers of every skill level. He also highlighted the challenges of bringing such a potential game-changer to market.
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"I understand your sentiments," Sindelar said when I shared my reluctance to be wedded to the pod. "And I share many of those sentiments. Because this device is large, because it is has a price tag of a certain type — even though it's a very good value — and we want to share this innovation with as many people as possible, we have to keep the device price as low as possible and properly fund the business."
Sindelar compared the contraption to the current king of the desktop vape category, the aforementioned Volcano, which is as open-source as it comes, but will cost you $80 to $300 more than the Ooka, depending on the model.
I totally get that the kind of technological innovation and design thought that clearly went into the Ooka doesn't come cheap. And I understand how partnerships like the Ooka X seven9 one can help lower the cost for consumers with the expectation that pod sales will follow consistently over time. Even so, If I'm shelling out $399 for a water pipe, I want to be able to smoke whatever I want out of it.
Because the Ooka's official launch is less than a month in the rear-view mirror, it's far too early to tell how the wider weed world will weigh the high-tech hookah's substantial upsides against its singular downside. And who knows what will happen to the proprietary pod approach down the line? In the case of both the $99 Omura (which hit the market in 2019) and the $299 Beed (which launched in April 2022), compatible DIY options were eventually incorporated into the offerings (though Beed's fill-your-own pods are currently available only outside California, where its pre-filled pods aren't available).
When I asked Sindelar about the prospect of adding fill-your-own pods, he didn't foreclose the possibility. "We're still working through a lot," he said. "But as we learn more about what is delivered to the person [vapor-wise], if we can control the temperatures over time and control the consistency of the performance and the hookah-type experience from start to finish, we can have greater confidence in opening [the platform] up. … We're looking at expansions into other states [the Ooka's availability is California-only currently]. We're also looking at formats that give us the ability to have this nationally. Some of that we will see very soon."
For now, even though it's a focus-pulling sesh centerpiece that can deliver delightful, robust clouds of cool vapor that will get you higher than the national debt ceiling, I can't, in good conscience, say I think it's worth shelling out nearly $400 for the Ooka — at least right now.
What I can't recommend highly enough, though, is to try it out first hand if and when the opportunity arises. And it could arise soon: The Ooka folks have been enthusiastically hosting demonstrations across Southern California. One unfolded in April around the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival prior to launch, another at a 420 celebration in Marina Del Rey (featuring rapper Tyga) and, most recently, Ooka hoses were hoisted last weekend at a Puff Puff Pride event in Hollywood.
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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.