Meditation and yoga can combat stress and deepen relaxation, but what if you want to calm down without unplugging from your iPhone? Irish startup Galvanic may have a solution. The company is about to conclude a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to make the PIP, a galvanic skin response sensor that’s also a game controller.
Stress causes the sweat glands to activate, changing the conductivity of your skin in a reaction known as a galvanic skin response (GSR). The PIP, held between finger and thumb, measures that response and transmits it to an Android or Apple device. Galvanic has also developed several games, including a racing game called Relax and Race, which use the PIP as a controller. Galvanic’s CTO Daragh McDonnell calls it “competitive relaxation.”
“What the PIP and its games give you is feedback,” says McDonnell. “It tells you when you are succeeding. A lot of people don’t necessarily know how stressed they are or when they are de-stressing, what’s working for them. With the PIP there’s an element of practice and training. If you play the game often enough, you can see which strategies work so over a period of time you can develop a personal strategy for real-world situations.”
McDonnell has been working on biometric games for over 10 years. He was a member of the MindGames group at Media Lab Europe in Dublin and before the age of the smartphone ran a startup which aimed to develop such games for the consumer market. Galvanic has not only prototyped the PIP but also developed an algorithm for identifying anxiety based on skin response. “What galvanic skin response correlates with is arousal,” McDonnell explains. “Arousal could be stress, it could be excitement or various kinds of stimuli in your environment. We ask people to focus on relaxing so there is a correlation between what you are doing and actual skin conductance.”
Some skin conductance changes are more significant than others when it comes to identifying stress. Galvanic’s algorithm looks for trends and assigns significance to them. “If a lion jumped out in front of you now, you would get quite a steep skin response. If the lion went elsewhere it would come down pretty quickly. It’s a pulse. If you are relaxing the trend is a slow decline over a much longer period of time. The skin conductance baseline also varies a lot from one individual to another, depending on your ethnicity, your age, and your gender. The algorithm is baseline independent. It’s looking at deltas all the time,” says McDonnell.
Galvanic’s games include the aforementioned Relax and Race and a one-player game called Loom. Loom uses calming visuals and music to bring you into a relaxed state. The music starts with a single instrument and as you relax more instruments are added. By the end of the game you have a full symphony and the visuals have changed from winter to summer.
Galvanic’s Kickstarter campaign has received a lot of interest from health care professionals who work with children who are autistic or suffer from PTSD. “I think Carl Jung was the first person to use skin measurement as part of a course of treatment. There is a general body of work on its relationship with anxiety,” says McDonnell. He cites a recent Irish study using the PIP and Loom, in which they were shown to reduce stress. Tetris, incidentally, was found to increase it.
The PIP could even be used to tackle chronic pain and addiction. “People who have chronic pain experience anxiety and stress as a result of it and there is a feedback loop; If you can reduce the anxiety, that helps to reduce the pain. There is also a large element of stress in addiction. If you are craving that fix you get really stressed until you get it. The PIP isn’t the solution but it can form part of an overall course of therapy,” says McDonnell.
Galvanic isn’t the only mind-altering game in town. Two EEG headbands, Muse and Melon, raised funds on Indiegogo and Kickstarter respectively last year, and they also come with exercises which promise to help you achieve focus or calm. An EEG measures electrical activity in the brain via contacts on the scalp. As a medical instrument it has long been used to diagnose conditions like epilepsy and dementia as well as determining whether a patient in a coma is brain dead.
Brainwaves within particular ranges of frequencies are known as “alpha” or “beta” waves. Beta waves are emitted when people are alert, agitated, tense, or afraid and have frequencies ranging from 13 to 60 pulses per second in the Hertz scale. When we are relaxed, the frequency slows down to 7-13 pulses per second, the alpha wave range. The alpha rhythm is ideal for learning and performing complex tasks. Decreasing the brain rhythm to alpha also results in significant increases in the levels of beta-endorphins and dopamine.
The Muse EEG headband measures full brainwave spectrum data from four points on the scalp: the temples and behind the ears. Muse’s Brain Health system runs you through a series of mindfulness-based exercises such as deep breathing suitable for your current brainwave state.
I talked to Ariel Garten, the CEO of Interaxon, which makes Muse, during their fundraising campaign. “This is another tool to build body awareness. It’s a new sense,” says Garten. “This is still first stage technology so what we can detect is quite limited, but the very fact that we can detect it is pretty damn exciting. The predominant thing we can detect is alpha waves and beta waves. With 4-sensor technology you can’t yet read emotions. We can read arousal. With a lot more sensors you can begin to (read emotion).”
Muse can also be used as a controller. “We can do really basic controls–one dimension–based on alpha waves and beta waves. When you focus on something it will happen. If there’s a glowing ball in your game and you focus on it (to go into a beta state), it can get bigger,” says Garten.
McDonnell, who worked with EEGs during his Media Lab days, is more skeptical about measuring EEG “in the wild.” “It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack at the other side of the universe. It’s such a tiny electrical signal. Normally when you measure it you have an EEG cap on with 20 or 24 electrodes and you are in a shielded room. Interference from mains or mobile phones or even muscular movement tends to drown out the signal. If you blink you get a massive spike of EMG which would drown out the EEG measurement. As a caveat, these products may have proprietary technology, some cool magic, that is filtering out all that noise,” he says.
Muse raised almost twice its fundraising target of $150,000. PIP is still $20,000 shy of its $100,000 goal. Either way electronic mind monitoring devices may be here to stay.