What would you do if you wanted to improve your video game skills? Practice more often? Study game maps? Maybe get some tips from pro gamers? But why do any of that when you can just hook some electrodes to your scalp and run an electric current through your cranium? That's what Focus Labs is offering with the foc.us headset, which it claims will improve a gamer's abilities by stimulating specific areas of the brain with a low electric current.
It may sound like science fiction, but according to the developers, the headset's mind-boosting abilities come from transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS), a controversial practice that has seen a minor resurgence in recent years. In the past, tDCS has been employed to treat chronic pain, prevent migraines, and even improve a person's math skills, but the effects are still being explored by researchers.
In the case of the foc.us headset though, the electric current supposedly heightens the wearer's brain power to give them an edge in competitive video games. "Stimulating the prefrontal cortex is good for working memory, vigilance and focus, all used when gaming," says inventor Michael Oxley.
The headset itself is built around a Bluetooth low energy system chip from Texas Instruments connected to an array of four electrodes. Once placed on a person's head, the electrodes need to be adjusted to the correct spots on the forehead to ensure the current passes through the prefrontal cortex. Sponges soaked in a saline solution are then fitted between the electrodes and the wearer's skin to prevent burns. Additional electrodes can also be attached to stimulate other areas of the brain or produce alternate effects.
Users can control the amount and duration of the charge manually on the headset itself or through an iOS app, which connects to the headset via Bluetooth (an Android app currently isn't possible due to its lack of Bluetooth low energy APIs). By default, the electrodes will apply 1 mA of current for five minutes – which will suit most people, according to the company – but that can be reconfigured from 0.8 to 2 mA for a period of five minutes up to 40 minutes.
When in use, encrypted firmware monitors the resistance between the electrodes and alters the voltage immediately to reach a specified amount. The app also instructs the headset to gradually raise the charge at the beginning to help users ease into the sensation. Like most tDCS devices, one short session should be enough to produce results, whatever they may be.
Studies have shown the practice of tDCS could help in treating depression and certain brain injuries, but there's only been one study that measured video game performance, and that was only used as a tool to gauge a soldier's aptitude. Critics have also questioned why the headset is built to stimulate the prefrontal cortex instead of the motor or visual cortices, which directly affect a person's reaction time.
The foc.us does have the distinction of being one of the few consumer-friendly tDCS devices available, which is sure to appeal to enthusiasts who might otherwise have to rely on homemade gadgets powered by a 9V battery. However, even though the foc.us headset is claimed to meet all regulatory safety requirements, the official website does state that it "offers no medical benefits, is not a medical device, and is not regulated by the FDA."
The foc.us headsets are currently available to order in either red or black for US$249 each, shipping is expected to start in July. Each package includes a headset, carrying case, micro-USB cable, and eight reusable sponges. Focus Labs is also offering a 30-day money back guarantee, so skeptical customers have the option to return the headset for a full refund if they aren't satisfied with the experience.
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