Nothing says 'we're living inside science fiction' more than brain reading gadgets. And yet here we are - headbands and headsets that promise to measure our brain activity, let us control Netflix or drones with our concentration and even rewire our brains to perform better.
Pretty much all the connected headgear below uses EEG in some capacity. EEG stands for electroencephalography, a method of detecting electrical activity in the brain which is used in hospitals to measure everything from brain disorders to epilepsy. These consumer devices aren't medically approved but some have been subject to university studies on their effectiveness.
Sometimes, EEG sensors are combined with other technologies such as electrocardiography (for heart rate and HRV), electromyography (EMG for electrical activity in the muscles) and electrooculography (EOG, for eye movements). If you want to learn more about how mind reading wearables access our brain activity and what the experts think, check out our in-depth feature on how they work.
We have not conducted any scientific tests of these brain reading, mind control and neurostimulation gadgets but where we've tried them out ourselves, we will report back on our personal findings. EEG headgear has been around for years but now we're seeing it in stylish headbands and sunglasses, not to mention the eye-widening experimental projects coming out now the tech is cheaper and, in some cases, open source.
Where brain reading is at in 2017
A big name in brain sensing, InterAxon's Muse headband is a slim, sleek band that more affordable than most similar device at $249. It uses seven EEG sensors to provide you with biofeedback on the iOS and Android companion apps while taking part in meditation and breathing exercises. The audio feedback is key to help you regulate your breathing and stress levels in real time, not just track them.
When we tested Muse, we were impressed, there's a few small scale studies backing up its scientific claims and its Amazon reviews are generally positive suggesting this is one of brain sensing's first real consumer hits.
The Halo Sport headset is aimed at amateur & pro athletes and uses 'neuropriming' i.e. stimulating your motor cortex for around 20 minutes during your workouts. This puts your brain in a state of heightened plasticity and learning so that, in theory, your body adapts more quickly to training.
Wareable contributor Kieran Alger lived with the $699 Halo Sport for a month. He found that it could help to unlock users' potential but that Halo needs to provide more data so you can see how much your strength/endurance/speed has improved.
Due for a September 2017 release, the Smith Lowdown Focus is the first device from the new Safilo X digital eyewear partnership between Italian glasses makers Safilo Group and InterAxon. The smart sunglasses' invisible functions are built on the same brain sensing tech as the Muse and also has eye tracking, facial expression reading thanks to EOG plus some fitness sensors that may be activated in the future.
The aim here is emotional regulation for anyone looking to perform well under pressure - in sports, at work or when driving. The partnership will extend to more Safilo Group brands including Carrera and Polaroid. Safilo's innovation director Nicola Belli told us that they will be targeting both students and 'knowledge workers' as well as anyone looking to enhance their snowsports performance: "They are potentially customers of this kind of performance device because they are all using their brains as their main tool for their daily life."
One of the darlings of the brain enhancing tech scene, Thync's latest device is the Relax. Unlike its previous offering, the Vibe, this sits on the neck but it is actually still stimulating the brain's adrenaline system. Thync's team, made up of ex-MIT, Stanford and Harvard neuroscientists, is trying to offer customisable neurosignalling to replace drink or drugs when people want to de-stress.
Our US editor Hugh Langley has tried it out and said: "When the demo was over, I definitely felt different, but the change had been subtle. I felt sleepy. I'm intrigued to test it over a longer period of time and see if it really can have a positive impact on my stress levels." It's due to launch as a 'Pro' version in spring 2017.
This brain training device has been in the works since 2012 so we're hoping for a 2017 release. The Neuroverse Brainstation uses wireless EEG sensors combined with "other techniques" to help provoke neuroplasticity, like the Halo Sport, via a series of games and exercises. You get a brain score with the overall goal to improve attention, memory and decision making.
"One thing we have been doing is creating a brain tracker – like a fitness tracker, same deal," founder Gill de Costa told us at last year's Web Summit, "so you can see days, pick them, see your brain score, and compare the last two month or two days. We're working with our design team to work out what's the best way to visually represent them."
There's also an interesting BrainStation VR version with an open API in which users focus and relax to control objects and blink to shoot.
Tech on the brain
- Living with Halo SportWe try out Halo's neuroscience headset to see if it really works
- How mind reading wearables actually workWe speak to experts on whether brain detecting wearables are all they claim to be
- Neuroverse's BrainStation & VR controlsAnd tune up your brain at the same time
- Muse headband reviewWe count our breaths and stress out about relaxing with the Muse headband
Experiments in brain sensing
The DIY option, OpenBCI is a brain-computer interface platform that's open source so you could 3D print your own headset or buy the low cost ($249 - $349) "headware" complete with biosensing boards which can measure EEG, ECG and EMG signals from the brain, heart and muscles.
So what is it capable of? Most recently we wrote about how French developers combined OpenBCI with sex toy maker Lovense's API to experiment with mind controlled sex toys. It needs more testing but dev Gille de Bast told us that the aim is to "connect the sex toy to visual imagery and ask people to think of someone to make the toy vibrate rather than concentrate on making the toy actually vibrate."
At Netflix's Hack Day back in January, one of the teams decided to use the Muse headband (above) and turn it into a Netflix controller. The idea behind Mindflix is that simply by thinking 'Play" you can start a show on the streaming service - Muse doesn't detect what you're thinking of course but part of its MO is picking up focus and concentration. This could be perfect for both lazy millennials and anyone who isn't able to just reach for a remote or smartphone. It's a concept for now.
The $799 Emotiv Epoc+ EEG headset has been around for a few years, with over 70,000 developers creating all sorts of apps from industry to VR controls. The Epoc+ has 14 channels and offers access to the raw data whereas the cheaper $299 edition, the Insight, has 5 channels. Unlike the Halo or Lowdown Focus, both look like bonkers brain reading devices.
One of our favourite uses we've seen so far is that a bunch of University of Florida students wearing Emotiv headsets raced drones via mind control last April. For $14.95 you can get the MindDrone software from Emotiv in order to hook up the headset to a Parrot AR Drone 2.0.
This is the real cutting edge of mind reading tech and won't be available to buy as a gadget for a while, if ever. But it's still fascinating. Essentially, the cap uses infrared light to detect blood flow in the brain and by using test questions, researchers in Germany were able to differentiate between 'yes' and 'no'.
The cap was tested on three patients with locked-in syndrome who are unable to communicate. They were able to respond to questions just by thinking 'yes' or 'no'. The device has a 70% accuracy and the lead neuroscientist's next goal is to develop a system so that people wearing it can speak proactively and not just answer questions.