Forget Wearables — Here’s the First Real ‘Thinkable’
The hot tech category of wearable devices is not only way too broad, it’s too stressful to even think about. Should you strap on a Jawbone Up or a Fitbit Flex to count your steps? Should you buy the Moto 360 now, or wait an interminable amount of months for the Apple Watch? Will Google Glass get you beaten up in public, or just make you look like a complete idiot?
If your head is overheated with such concerns, you may be a perfect candidate for the Muse — the first consumer-focused headband that is not so much a wearable, but more of a thinkable. The Muse’s one and only goal, for the moment: To look at your brain activity and help you stop thinking so damn much.
The Muse, formerly an Indiegogo campaign, costs $299 — not cheap by any stretch of the imagination, although that’s still $50 below the bottom-end Apple Watch. But what you get for that money could pay for itself in therapy sessions and mindfulness classes.
The Bluetooth-connected Muse headset, when used in conjunction with its iOS and Android app called Calm, is the best gadget yet for teaching you how to meditate like a Zen master.
You’ve probably seen more than enough studies on the value of meditation — it can lower your blood pressure, relieve migraines, reduce the risk of heart attacks, help conquer anxiety and depression, make you more creative, and so on.
Then you try to meditate, and discover why we’re not all happy healthy Buddhist monks. Meditation practice can be calming and uplifting, but it’s more likely to be profoundly boring, confusing, soporific, stressful, even a little scary. Dark thoughts arise unbidden from the tangle of your chattering mind; you try to let them go. But are you trying too hard? Are you thinking about thinking? You’re supposed to concentrate on your breath, but are you breathing correctly? What does that even mean?
No wonder so many of us fail to incorporate meditation into our daily routine, as much as we know we’d benefit. It’s much easier to fool ourselves into thinking that a little chill-out time is all that’s required — kicking back on the couch with a smartphone or tablet in hand, playing a little mindless Candy Crush Saga.
And that’s the beauty of the Muse — it operates in that space in your life taken up by smartphones, couches and Candy Crush. You need only use it for three minutes a day. It is meditation as a game — but not any kind of obnoxious, overwrought game. It’s blissfully simple and has great repeatability.
The Muse headset.
The hardest part is putting the headset on and getting the right fit. It’s not the plastic headband part, but a narrow strip of flexible metal around the inside that’s actually reading the faint electric signals in your brain. Adjusting the pieces that fit behind your ears help make this metal strip snug.
You do have to accept that any kind of brain-reading headset is going to look a little bit silly, by definition. Still, InteraXon, the Canadian company behind the Muse, has done a good job at minimizing the silliness factor. By contrast the Epoc Emotiv, the last brain-reading device I tried (designed for gamers, with a $399 price tag), makes your head look and feel like it’s being hugged by a plastic octopus.
But the Muse is as thin as it can be at the front, at least; the white version especially looks like something Apple might design (and undoubtedly will; look for Apple to reveal its own “thinkable” in about a decade’s time to a breathless world.)
There’s a large button on the inside of the right behind-the-ear piece that handles the Bluetooth connection with your iPad or iPhone. Pairing was seamless and faster than most Bluetooth devices. Five colors appear on the screen when you’ve got all the sensors lined up correctly. For me, this took less than a minute. (The colors aren’t strictly necessary, since a tiny map of the headset on screen at all times will tell you which sensors aren’t picking up any signal from your buzzing brain.)
If you’re at all concerned about the apparent simplicity with which a $300 gadget can read your brain and what that means for the state of privacy in the 21st century, don’t worry — and don’t reach for the tin foil hat just yet. The electric signal your thoughts give off is so weak, it can be interrupted by any muscle movement in your head at all, even moving your jaw and blinking. (Take that, NSA mind-readers!) That’s why the Calm app asks you to close your eyes and sit comfortably whenever it’s actively trying to look into your head via the Muse.
It starts by calibrating itself to your chattering brain. A soothing voice asks you to think of three categories of objects, such as fruits or musical instruments, in quick succession. However, InteraXon told me the categories don’t matter — it’s just a way of lighting up your frontal lobes. The Muse can’t actually tell whether you’re thinking of a pomegranate or a piccolo (yet).
Armed with readings from the unquiet mind, the app then takes you through a three-minute meditation session. When you’re calm and focused on your breath, you’ll hear the sound of breaking waves. If thoughts start to crowd into your head, you’ll hear a gust of wind — not like gale-force wind, just enough to nudge you back to the quietness of simply breathing. When it’s over, you get to see how much of the time your brain spent in three categories: Active, neutral and calm.
If you’re very lucky and extremely calm, you’ll hear the sound of birds — the more Zen, the more birds. I was rather proud of the fact that I got three birds during my first session with the device. Then I took it home to my wife, who got 19 birds on her first try. Curses.
Image: Mashable, Chris Taylor
Yes, more than one person can use the same Muse headset. This is perhaps one of the strongest features of the device: You need only buy one per household. InteraXon says one Muse will support up to five smartphones and tablets.
And yes, this will probably engender a little friendly competition between spouses, siblings and friends. Yes, that does seem inherently odd. We’re not sure what the Buddha would make of the notion of competitive Zen, but hey, it’s just harnessing the energy of humans doing what humans do, and turning that toward positive ends.
Of course, the only way to compete effectively is by clearing your mind of the competition. The less it matters, the better you’ll do. There’s a lesson even professional athletes could stand to re-learn.
Image: Mashable, Chris Taylor
Each session provides you with a few hundred points; you have to earn 5,000 points before unlocking more advanced features of the Muse. That isn’t just gamification for gamification’s sake— it allows the device to get to learn the patterns of your brain activity a little bit more.
And that’s good news for the future of Muse.
To grow and evolve beyond a single app, the device needs to attract developers. What else could you do with an advanced brain-reading headset, other than meditation and games? Devs may want to clear their minds before figuring it out.
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