Hands-on: Staying focused (or not) with the Muse brain-sensing headband
InterAxon's brain-sensing headband has been around for a while now, having debuted on Indiegogo in 2012. Since then, it has won a Design and Engineering Award at CES, received a number of updates and, this week, launched in Europe. Gizmag took it for a spin at the Wearable Technology Show.
Muse is one of a growing number of consumer electroencephalography (EEG) headsets that serve a variety of purposes. Last year Gizmag covered the Aurora headband that aims to help make lucid dreaming easier for its users, while more recently researchers from Portugal's Brainflight project demonstrated a drone being piloted by human thought.
Muse differs from both of those examples in that its aim is to help users train their brains to become more focused and less prone to distraction. It is similar in that sense to some existing brain training apps, only with the ability to provide visualizations of what is actually happening inside users' heads at any given point during their sessions.
The device itself is a slim and flexible headband with seven sensors that rest again the wearer's head. It's a bit tricky to get the fit right at first and to ensure that all the sensors are making a good connection, but you get the hang of it. The locations of the sensors, around the forehead and behind the ears, allow Muse to monitor the electrical field created by the user's brain as a whole. This can then be correlated with the user's state of mind.
The headband works with the accompanying Calm app that is available on both iOS and Android devices and connects via Bluetooth. To use the app, it must first be calibrated by taking a snapshot of the user's brain in an active state. With eyes shut, the headset on and listening to audio instructions, users are asked to perform a brainstorming task, such as thinking of as many types of animals, languages or drinks as possible over the course of a minute.
Once the app is calibrated, users are guided through a three-minute exercise that aims to reduce stress, alleviate anxiety and increase focus and concentration. Users are asked to clear their mind as best they can and simply count their breaths from one to 10, beginning again when they reach 10. This is, of course, something you can do at any time; Muse simply allows users to view their performance.
it is immediately noticeable how easily your brain can wander when carrying out this exercise. Slight noises or fleeting thoughts can easily distract you from the task at hand and you have to refocus.
The Calm app provides immediate feedback on how you are doing, with more gentle wind sounds indicating a calm and focused mind and more stormy sounds indicating a more active mind. Apparently birds start singing after long periods of calm and focus, but I can't verify that – the stormy noises definitely feature though.
CEO of InterAxon Ariel Garten explained to me that such results during a first attempt are common and simply provide a platform for improvement going forward. She explained that sustained use will train your brain to stay more naturally calm and focused.
Garten went on to demonstrate the other functions of the Calm app, which include session results, long-term performance and a milestones and rewards section. Additional tips for improved performance are also provided.
Lots of other users at the Wearable Technology Show appeared to be reporting a sense of calmness and clarity after trying Muse. I can't say that I felt that, but then perhaps that'll teach me for having such a wandering mind. I'd certainly be willing to try a device like this over the long-term as is intended.
Muse was simple to use and presented results clearly via the app. I can well believe that it can help to improve your brain state in the long term and certainly the reviews of it on Amazon, Google Play and the Apple App store are overwhelmingly positive. At around US$299 (or £239 in the UK) it seems perhaps a little pricey for what is currently a fairly limited set of functionality, but InterAxon says there is more functionality to come.
The video below provides an introduction to the Muse headband. You can see more images of the Muse headband and the Calm app in our gallery.