The future is now. For the past few decades, new technology has been gradually bridging the gap between our present and science fiction properties like Star Trek. Handheld, portable communicators and language translators are just some of the futuristic tech that not long ago was pure fantasy and is now just a normal part of life.
The latest technological phenomenon that seemingly traveled back in time from the Starship Enterprise is the brainwave headset. This wearable tech – also known as EEG or biofeedback headsets – offers the wearer insight into their own mind and the complex wiring underneath the surface.
There is a lot to learn about this technology and its potential uses.
- Reading brainwaves
- Why use a brainwave headset?
- Brands of Brainwave Headsets
- Brainwave headsets of the future
- Other uses for brainwave headsets
Technology that reads brain activity isn’t new, but until recently, it has been very large and far from affordable. For years, hospitals have had machines that cost tens of thousands of dollars that required adhering electrodes to a patient. Over the last few decades, researchers have been working on miniaturizing that technology.
The popularity of health and sleep trackers like the Fitbit and smartwatches has made the daily (or hourly) monitoring of the body commonplace. People have gotten used to tracking their heartbeats, footsteps and sleeping patterns. It was only natural that the next step would be to go deeper: a journey into the mind.
How are brainwaves measured?
Brainwave headsets utilize Electroencephalography (EEG) to monitor the activity of the brain. Specifically, they track neurons by measuring their voltage output. This output corresponds with the five different waves of brain activity: Delta, Theta, Alpha, Beta, and Gamma. Observing which waves are present indicates the brain state, from deep sleep (delta waves) to hyper alertness (gamma waves), and everything in between.
Traditionally, getting an EEG reading has to be done in a hospital. A patient will have around 20 electrodes attached to their head which then read the electrical signals in their brain. That information is transmitted to a machine that records the information as a series of lines in a wave pattern.
In addition to determining whether we are dreaming (theta waves) or having a conversation (beta waves), brainwaves can reveal a great deal about our health and mental state. EEG is most often used to look for risks of seizures or neurological disorders.
Furthermore, as EEG technology gets smaller, it can allow a wearer to control a bionic limb or move a wheelchair (like we said, the future is here).
If you want a more in-depth explanation on how these Personal EEG Devices work, this video by Dr. Cody Rall, gives a very good overview. He is a board member of the The American Psychiatric Association’s Psychiatry Innovation Lab:
What more can we do with brainwaves?
As the technology has gotten more advanced, it has been aimed towards other, non-medical applications, like video games and home technology. If a headset is “trained” properly, it can learn the difference between the firing of different neurons and translate those into specific actions; at least, in theory.
This technology is quite impressive and its many future applications are only limited by our imagination, but it’s important to know that some claims are still a bit far fetched. Brainwave headsets categorically do not read minds or know your thoughts. Yet.
Why use a brainwave headset?
As discussed, amputees and other physically handicapped people are a prime target for this technology. However, the makers of these headsets see them as far more than physical aids and have marketed them as health monitors and meditation tools.
The first of the brainwave headsets to hit the consumer market was the Muse.
Advertised as a “personal meditation assistant,” the Muse headset works with an app on a smartphone to monitor your brainwaves and display the data. As you meditate, it senses if you are calm and plays soothing wind (or other nature) sounds in your earpiece. The more active your mind, though, the more active the sound of wind.
Muse’s associated app, Calm, serves one purpose: to help you achieve a more meditative state. In addition to the wind sounds playing as you meditate, the app shows how much of your meditation was spent in a calm, neutral, or active state. Users find that being able to see the cold hard data helps them make the necessary mental calibrations to sustain a prolonged meditative state.
How do you wear brainwave headsets?
Of course, Muse isn’t the only headset available, and each of them has a slightly different design. The underlying mechanics of how the headsets work is essentially the same – external sensors connect to different parts of the head and take readings (these sensors are essentially less invasive electrodes).
The Muse headset actually looks like a headband that wraps around your forehead and secures behind your ears.
Another headset, the Thync Relax Pro uses adhesive to attach to the back of your neck (the original attached to the forehead).
The NeuroSky MindWave Headset looks like a typical headphone with extra contraptions added on.
Emotiv currently sells three different versions of its hi-tech headset. The Insight is a simple wrap-around headset, whereas the EPOC+ is slightly more intrusive, gripping your head with multiple tendrils like a mechanical squid. There is also the EPOC Flex Gel Sensor Kit that fits over your head in a full, black cap.
Despite making some similar claims, each of these brainwave headsets have their unique features (and downsides). They also vary considerably in price.
Brands of Brainwave Headsets
As previously discussed, the Muse headset was the first on the scene. The Toronto-based company launched their headset in 2014. Unlike the other headsets we’ll discuss, Muse doesn’t make many bold claims about being a multipurpose tool. All of the marketing is focused exclusively on how this product can assist you in meditation.
Thync Relax Pro:
The Thync Relax Pro, an improvement on the Thync Calm and Energy Wearable, is a bit different from Muse. The Thync headset is designed to help you achieve a more relaxed state, as well, but it does so actively by sending mild electrical stimulation to your brain. It’s a product with a lot of promise, but unfortunately it doesn’t appear to be available at the moment. Hopefully the makers will get the funding necessary to put it back in front of consumers.
The NeuroSky MindWave Headset For a more affordable price than many of the other options mentioned, you get a less dynamic and comfortable version of the Muse headset. It does offer considerably more apps, though, and if the initial design hasn’t quite made it a must-have item, NeuroSky does seem posed to expand the uses of the technology. Apps and extra features include a movie player and a remote control helicopter that you operate with your mind.
And then there is Emotiv.
Emotiv brainwave headsets
Emotiv has been around since 2011 and is at the forefront of advancing the use and applications of EEG technology.
Personalized EEG headsets have their uses, but as is the case whenever complex technology is taken and made smaller, they have limited capabilities. The main reason brainwave headsets lack the refinement and diagnostic capabilities of hospital machines is the reduction in sensors. Muse uses seven sensors, and the others use less.
Emotiv’s three different headsets use seven, 14, and 34 separate sensors, respectively. The first is the $299 Insight 5 Channel Mobile EEG. The set can measure excitement and stress levels (among other emotions) as well as facial expressions. It can also be programmed to understand four pretrained mental commands. The Insight is currently sold out, but expect it (or an updated version) to make a return.
The $799 EPOC+ 14 Channel Mobile EEG is the more refined version of the Insight. It offers the same capabilities – four pretrained mental commands, as well as emotional state and facial expression reading – but with more than twice as many sensors, the EPOC+ offers a considerably more nuanced and sophisticated examination of the wearer’s mental state.
Finally, there is the EPOC Flex Gel Sensor Kit for a whopping $2,099. This kit, which comes with a cap that goes around the entire head, isn’t designed for home wear and requires a monthly licensing agreement. That said, the fact that equipment this hi-tech has been condensed to such a compact kit suggests that the portability of this technology will continue to increase.
Brainwave headsets of the future
The future of the brainwave headset includes the Versus Headset. Currently only available for preorder at the considerable cost of $799, Versus promises “to improve mental acuity, concentration, and sleep management.” When the product is released, it will be packaged with a variety of apps and features that will, presumably considering its cost, set it apart from the pack.
Beyond these functions, though, the Versus website suggests that EEG technology may have considerably more uses in the near future. If the technology is going to continue to advance, it will be down these avenues.
Other uses for brainwave headsets
At the moment, the main focus of brainwave headsets is either for meditation or relaxation. The ability to understand our brains better allows us to make changes in our daily habits and activities so that we can get to a much more balanced mental state. That’s certainly a benefit in these stressful times, but the science suggests that may only be the tip of the iceberg for this technology.
The uses and effects of EEG biofeedback have been studied in regards to an array of disciplines and medical conditions, including: addictions, autism, depression, learning disabilities, OCD, PTSD, schizophrenia, and much more. These studies aren’t necessarily related to brainwave headsets, but the more we understand about the chemistry of the brain, the more applications this technology could theoretically have.
Behavioral uses for brainwave headsets
Though the technology is currently marketed as meditation tools and relaxation aids, people are finding varied uses for the headsets.
One interesting way that the technology is being used is as a tool for behavioral improvement. One study, conducted by researchers at Kansas State University, took Muse headsets into a middle school. Twenty 8th graders who had exhibited classroom behavioral issues were selected (with parental permission) to participate.
Twice a week the selected students would be given an opportunity to use the Muse headsets and were taught how to use the meditation features. The study, which lasted five months, found that those students who used the headset showed a dramatic decrease in classroom incidents of misbehavior (compared to a control group).
Alone, this study might do more to prove the benefits of meditation rather than brainwave headsets, but any technology that can help bring about such results is certainly worth more research.
Brainwaves and music
Another interesting use for this technology is as an instrument for determining musical tastes. Belgium-based international research and development firm, IMEC, has a prototype of a headset that supposedly can gauge emotions, change video games, improve memory, and, most unique of all, find music to fit the wearer’s mood.
Technology that can turn brainwaves into mood music has some definite marketing capabilities, not all of them positive. Certainly, it’s possible to imagine a world where brainwaves are constantly monitored in order to produce more direct advertisements. Still, the idea of a smart jukebox that always knows the right song to play has its appeal.
The future of EEG
As the technology becomes more prevalent and more and more users hook themselves up to brainwave readers, the growing data will be invaluable. There is already at least one group who is hoping to utilize all that information.
OpenBCI labels themselves as a collective of scientists, artists, designers, and “much more” that hope “to further understand and expand who we are.” BCI stands for Brain-Computer Interface which is the overarching term for technology like brainwave headsets. They have even developed an EEG set that can be 3D-printed.
Like so many other collectives in the internet age, OpenBCI believes that the best way to build up a database of knowledge is to crowdsource it. If human-computer mergers are our inevitable future (and it sure seems that way), this collective hopes to gather as much information as possible as we travel down that road.
Where we are now
We are at an interesting time in our technological history. The rapid evolution of technology means that we are always simultaneously at a moment of unprecedented advancement and on the verge of something ever greater.
Where brainwave headsets and EEG technology go from here is hard to predict, but it’s clear that there is no shortage of possibilities.