Levitate Objects With This Fitness Tracker For Your Brain

EEG sensors are no longer giant $10,000 devices. They’re now so small that they can be used to monitor everyday activities–and perform a couple of neat party tricks.

While exploring the demo area of a health conference this summer, I came across a small table where a handful of people wearing headsets and intently watching videos were sitting. An employee offered me a seat, rubbed some saline solution on my scalp, and placed one of the portable EEG devices on my head, adjusting its 14 tentacle-like sensors so that they could read my detailed brain activity. After watching a series of short videos, I received my “personality test” results via email, all based on how an EEG machine interpreted my engagement with the different videos.


I was using one of the most basic functions of the Emotiv EPOC, a brain-computer interface that detects movement, emotion, facial expression, and head rotation–a series of measurements that make it possible for people to do activities with their minds, such as control video games and toys or move robots that aid in physical rehab.

The EPOC neuroheadset, launched in 2010, was the first generation brain-computer interface to come from Emotiv. The second-generation device, the Emotiv Insight, is available for pre-order via Kickstarter–and at the time of writing, has already reached nearly $1 million in funding.

Tan Le, the founder of Emotiv, says the company has two main goals: to take a clinical system (the EEG) from the lab into the real world and to democratize brain research. Before Emotiv and competitors like NeuroSky rolled out their devices, EEGs were cumbersome pieces of equipment that cost up to $10,000 and needed a dedicated technician to operate. That made it difficult for non-scientists–or even amateur scientists–to conduct studies and gather EEG data for research. “The barrier to entry [for brain research] is so high that it’s difficult to get the level of innovation and transformative effects that we’ve seen in other industries,” says Le. Now that’s starting to change, he says.

The Insight, the company’s second product, is similar to the EPOC, with some key differences. The most obvious is the form factor. People still might look at you strangely if you wore the Insight headset in daily life, but it’s much sleeker than the EPOC, which looks more like a medical device. Partly, this is because the Insight has just five sensors, while the EPOC has 14. But that’s a minor tradeoff–the EPOC has slightly better spatial resolution.

The Insight is also a lot easier to use. While the EPOC features saline-based sensors that need to be moistened to work effectively–a hassle for people who want to use the device on a regular basis–after extensive research, Emotiv came up with a new kind of hydrophilic polymer sensor that absorbs moisture from the environment. No extra applied moisture is necessary with the Insight.

Unlike the EPOC, the Insight is also compatible with mobile devices. Expect plenty of diverse third-party apps: Neurotherapy, neuromarketing, neurofeedback, and game applications are all likely. Emotiv is also creating its own app that offers everyday performance tracking. “It’s similar from what you might expect to see from the Shine, the Fitbit, or the Up band, but instead of tracking steps, you’re tracking engagement, focus, interest, stress, and relaxation,” explains Le.


If you wanted to improve your meditation practice, you might use the app to see how often you drift out of focus, for example. And if you were dealing with writers block, the app could point out the brain metrics that get you into “the zone.”

If the Insight reaches its $1 million stretch goal, it will get a six-axis inertial sensor that makes it possible to track head movements, gait, tremor, gestures, and more.

“We wanted to engage with the community early, have people share their experiences, and let them participate in defining what the ultimate product is,” says Le. “We’ve learned a lot from our community.”

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.