Wearables don't always come in the forms of smartwatches and fitness trackers. One subgenre is wellness wearables, which promise to do things like manipulate your mood, relax your body or teach you to meditate. How do you separate life-enhancing tech from placebo effect? We took a handful for a test-drive.
Muse brain-sensing headband
Of all the wellness wearables I tried, Muse comes out on top. Put on the electronic tiara (along with a pair of earbuds) and follow the app's helpful meditation instructions. Based on the electrical activity the headband detects in your brain (it's an EEG), you'll hear audio cues that give you real-time feedback on how much you're quieting your mind.
Muse uses a weather theme for its audio guidance system. If you hear a louder storm, then the headband is detecting that your mind is distracted, racing or unfocused; if the weather calms down, that means your mind has too.
I perceived the audio cues as being consistent with my mental state. Over time, the feedback has taught me to coax myself into a quieter state-of-mind, with a focus on breathing. While I've meditated on and off for years, Muse's feedback helped me to better discern between focusing on my breathing and just thinking about focusing on my breathing. (In years past, I'd sometimes mistaken the latter for the former.)
What separates Muse from the pack? Rather than claiming to do everything for you, Muse helps you learn to calm your own mind – something you can take with you whether you continue using the device or not. It's a "teach a person to fish" wearable.
My only gripe about the impressive system is that it costs a hefty US$250, limiting its audience to only the most devoted of wannabe Buddhas.
Product page: Muse
- Buy Muse on Amazon
Reliefband is a wrist-worn anti-nausea device that works by electrically stimulating the nerves in your wrist. (TENS units are a recurring theme in wellness wearables.) According to its manufacturers, these impulses have a rebalancing effect on the nervous system that keeps all types of nausea at bay: motion sickness, morning sickness or even VR-induced spins.
The current model looks much like a (cheap) watch, with an adjustable buckle nylon band and a round dial to adjust its settings. To put it on, you dab a bit of electroconductivity gel (included) on your wrist, and fasten the band snugly. The dial portion is worn on the interior part of the wrist.
But the moment of truth: Reliefband successfully kept VR-induced nausea at bay. Normally I have to take frequent breaks and avoid certain games altogether. But with the Reliefband on level two, I was able to get further into an uninterrupted session of Drift (a dizzying Gear VR game) than I ever have before. To this nausea-prone game reviewer, this little band really does bring relief.
The surprisingly-effective Reliefband costs $80, but you might consider holding off for now: A sleeker-looking (but more expensive, at $150) 2nd-gen model will be arriving in Q2 2017.
- Emily Ferron
Product page: Reliefband
- Buy Reliefband on Amazon
Thync and Thync Relax
When we reviewed the original Thync in 2015, we likened it to digital drugs. When worn on your head, the "neuroscience-based" product sends electrical pulses into opposite sides of your head to either calm or energize you (depending which placement strips you use).
It sounded far-out, but I perceived it as working. The calm "vibe," especially, left me with a buzzy, chilled-out feeling in my head that lasted an hour or more after each session.
Soon, however, the company will be discontinuing that model in favor of Thync Relax, a 2nd-gen edition that puts both electrodes on the base of your neck. (In the original, one electrode went on your temple and another on your neck or behind your ear.)
Thync Relax also moves to an entirely subscription-based business model, which could help cut costs for heavier users.
While Thync Relax felt calming, it veered away from the buzzy "digital drugs" feeling from the original – reminding me instead of a regular TENS-unit neck massage. In fact, when I compared Thync Relax to cheap, store-bought TENS worn in the same spot on my neck, I perceived the relaxation experience as being identical.
The company also appeared to lack any research related to the new version, instead redistributing old studies based on the placement of the original model.
With that original version soon to be discontinued in favor of one we're more skeptical about, we don't currently recommend Thync.
Product page: Thync
- Buy Thync (1st-gen) on Amazon
Another TENS units we tried was the wireless and smartphone-connected iTens.
While scientific research on TENS units for pain relief is promising but inconclusive, few will deny that they make for a killer massage. If you've never tried one, they're common in chiropractors' offices. Tingly electrical pulses massage sore or tense areas of your body (or, as a Thync Relax alternative, the base of your neck).
Being app-connected, iTens lets you pick a pre-selected program or manually tweak the settings to find your ideal levels. Its gel-pad refills are cheaper than Thync's too, coming in at $7 for a pack of three. (The company estimates 10 uses for each.)
iTens doesn't claim to offer anything but a smartphone-based TENS massage, but it does that simple job well.
iTens comes in two sizes. Each costs $100, and includes one set of gel pads.
Product page: iTens
Consider this one an "incomplete," as I only tested Doppel briefly at CES 2017.
The idea, however, is interesting. Using haptic feedback to tap a beat on your wrist, the wearable will supposedly either calm you down (slower beat) or pick you up (faster beat) by simulating a heartbeat. In the very short time I demoed it, I perceived it as possibly working.
If this sounds too far-fetched, consider how music can affect your mood: Songs with slower rhythms tend to chill you out, while faster beats can get you pumped. We're eager to get some extended time with the product to see if that logic carries over to the alleged mood-tweaking wearable.
Doppel is up for pre-order now, for £125 (currently about US$157). The company expects shipments to start in March, when it will jump up to a $179 MSRP.
Product page: Doppel
For highlights from the more traditional sectors of wearable tech, you can check out our picks for the best wearables of 2016.