I was sitting in my co-working space, writing an article, when I first was tipped off to brain wearables. A couple feet away from me, a toy helicopter hovered in the air. Two men sat next to it; one of them controlling the helicopter’s movement with his mind, and the other offering a running dialogue on how the first man could concentrate more effectively and keep the helicopter in the air longer. I chalked it up to “only in San Francisco” weirdness, and moved on.
The man I watched, it turns out, was using a Puzzlebox Orbit brain-controlled helicopter with a NeuroSky MindWave Mobile EEG headset. It’s a $99 device that looks like a gaming headset and uses a single EEG electrode to measure brainwaves. The Mindwave has been available for half a decade, but by the beginning of next year, there will be a handful of more advanced (and more expensive) EEG headsets on the market that promise to do everything from keeping wearers more calm to letting them control light switches with a mere thought.
If these devices catch on, they could tell us more about ourselves than other wearables, like step-trackers and heart rate monitors, ever could.
So, I set out to test them. But it turns out that I arrived a little early to the revolution. Emotiv’s Insight headset, a more consumer-friendly followup to the electrode-heavy EPOC, won’t be available for a few months. Another EEG headset, the single-electrode iFocusBand, is being released in October, and the company couldn’t get me a prototype in time for this article. I was able to get my hands on a prototype of InteraXon’s Muse, an EEG headset that is billed as “a brain fitness tool that helps you do more with your mind, and more with your life, by helping you learn to manage stress, stay calm, and stay focused.”
After a week of testing, I can say that it has–sort of.
Up until recently, electroencephalography (EEG) was confined to hospitals and doctor’s offices, where dedicated technicians controlled $10,000 devices. The technology, which records the brain’s electrical activity via electrodes on the scalp, can be used to diagnose epilepsy, sleep disorders, diseases like Alzheimer’s, and other brain-related conditions. It’s also used in neurofeedback sessions with ADHD patients, who are trained to increase their beta waves (these signify an attentive state) through audio and video feedback linked to EEG activity.
By 2007,the technology had improved to the point that Neurosky was able to offer a mobile EEG device, the MindSet, for $200. That device, like the spate of mobile EEG devices that followed, used a single electrode.
In general, the more electrodes (or sensors), the more insight EEG headsets can offer into brain activity. The $399 Emotiv EPOC, released in 2009, has 14 sensors and claims to offer hospital-quality EEG readings. But it’s not all that comfortable. The device feels like you’re wearing a many-tentacled creature on your head–a sensation enhanced by the fact that the sensors require conductive gel to work properly. Add that to the hefty price tag, and the EPOC is attractive mainly to researchers.
Now, Emotiv is gearing up to release the Insight–a lightweight device that uses seven dry sensors (no gel needed) and can track head movements, gait, tremor, and gestures in addition to emotional states (like stress, focus, and relaxation) and mental commands (like push, pull, lift, drop, and disappear). The $299 Muse also offers seven sensors, and while its first app focuses exclusively on bringing users into a meditative state, it has the potential to offer much more.
The Muse isn’t like most wearable tech devices available today. You aren’t supposed to wear it all day, and it’s sensitive enough that every time you yawn, turn your head, or make any sudden movements you have to check and make sure that all the sensors are still attached to your scalp. Once you adjust the Muse to fit your head, it stays reasonably put, but it requires a few minutes of adjustment each time it’s used if you are sharing the device with someone else in your household, like I did (one Muse headset can be used across multiple smartphones).
For now, the Muse has just one smartphone app, called Calm, that teaches users to enter a meditative state. It’s an extremely simple game that you can play with your eyes closed. When you’re calm and paying attention to your breathing, you hear the sounds of a quiet beach, with waves lapping on the shore. Stay calm long enough, and birds start chirping and landing on the beach. If you start thinking too much, the sound of heavy wind gusts enters the scene. The game can be used for as little as three minutes per day to get results.
You really have no choice but to close your eyes during the session since muscle movement–even a movement as small as blinking an eye–interrupts the brain’s electrical signals.
My first try with the Muse was embarrassingly bad, as seen on the app’s graphs of calmness over time. I spent 11% of my three-minute session being calm, 24% being in some sort of neutral state, and 65% active. To be fair, a significant portion of my active time was spent making sure that the Muse’s sensors were all connected (one of the sensors kept disconnecting every time I made any movement, and as a result, I spent most of my time with the app sitting like a completely immobile Buddha, which I suppose is sort of the point).
Then, over the course of just a few days, I got better at the game–and also got better at bringing myself into a calm state even without the headset. Here’s my readout from day six:
It’s not perfect, but going from an OCD brain to one that can slip into a meditative state on command usually takes more than a week.
For someone like me, who is unlikely to go to a meditation class, the Muse is a convenient way to quiet the brain. But with just one compatible app, it’s still not worth $299. I expect that could change.
“In the short term, you’re going to see Muse used in athletics, performance enhancement, and education. A few years down the road, you’ll see more applications like drowsiness detection, use of Muse in entertainment, games, and other similar applications. In the longer term, Muse will more directly interact with your technologies, it will detect when your cognitive load is maxed, and will better understand your emotions and reactions,” writes Jocelyn Umengan, senior manager of PR and events at InteraXon. “It will evolve into a technology that is capable of more fully supporting you… it could cue your phone to stop ringing because you are sleeping, or your email notifications will be placed on hold because you are in fact too busy to receive the distractions. Your iTunes could be cued up to play your favorite songs when you need cheering up.”
Emotiv is the company that first brought the potential of mobile EEGs to my attention. While at a conference last year, I tried on the EPOC, which measured my brainwaves in response to a series of images on a screen and offered up a personality evaluation at the end.
I was impressed, but it took quite awhile to get the ungainly EPOC situated on my head. The Insight is much more comfortable–about as lightweight as the Muse, and seemingly more secure on my head.
While the Insight’s capabilities weren’t ready to be handed to reporters, Joyce Golomb, Emotiv’s developer and community relations manager, brought me a prototype device to try on at a cafe. Unlike the Muse, the Insight will come in three sizes. The size that Golomb brought to try happened to fit my head much better on the first try compared to the Muse. However, I had no way to know if the sensors were aligned correctly since we never turned the device on.
Emotiv doesn’t yet know what the initial Insight apps will be, but Golomb hints that the company is looking for ways to help users be creative, memorize things more effectively, measure stress, and measure relaxation. Initially, Emotiv hoped that people could use the Insight while being active–going running or doing yoga, for example. That still might be possible, but judging by how sensitive the Muse sensors are, it seems like it could be difficult.
At the outset, Golomb envisions the market for the Insight as being much larger than people who simply seeking relaxation. “It’s for parents who want to help their kids, quantified selfers, the mindfulness community, gamers, smart home applications,” she says. “It’s for people into health tracking and neuromarketing.” Theoretically, the Insight could also be used by doctors to get a quick EEG reading on patients, without having to wait until a technician wheels in a big EEG machine. But Emotiv has no plans to seek FDA approval.
“There’s a doctor at UCSF who wants to bring this to developing countries that can’t afford EEG systems,” notes Golomb. “Other countries don’t have as strict rules.”
If mobile EEG devices do become popular, manufacturers need to be able to reassure users that their privacy is safe (Golomb says that only apps that can secure users’ data will be allowed on the Insight platform). But first, developers will have to get onboard with these new platforms. And the public will have to get comfortable with wearing gadgets that are only slightly less awkward than Google Glass.