- Nice and light
- Easy to pair and wear
- Very expensive
- Too much gamification
- Brain sensing hit and miss
The modern world is a hectic place. There's always a notification pulling you in a certain direction, work to do, bills to pay, relationships to manage and life to live. Could a pair of smartglasses – the Smith Lowdown Focus glasses, specifically – help you better manage all of this by listening to your brain?
Neuroscience tech company InterAxon, creator of the Muse headband, has teamed up with with Italian eyewear giant Safilo to put its tech in a pair of glasses that look like an everyday pair of shades.
The glasses sense your brain activity and use feedback to try and bring you down to a calmer state, while also using gamification to keep you coming back and unlocking more abilities. But at $349.99 they're also pretty damn expensive.
Neuroscience wearables are certainly gaining traction, but do these glasses even work? I put them to the test to find out.
Lowdown Focus: Design
Ah, finally, here are a pair of smartglasses that actually look good. The Lowdown Focus look like a decent pair of Ray Bans. They're stylish enough in the black, and there's a matte gray option as well. If you go with the Lowdown Focus Slim, which are built for narrower faces, you'll get a Stormtrooper-like white and black design.
The surprising thing about the Focus is how light and plastic-y they feel. If you've held a pair of good Ray Bans, you know that they have a decent amount of heft to them. The Focus feel like a pair of free glasses you get at the community fair, with most of the technology packed into part of the temples.
In this way, the Focus are actually kind of balanced. The front half of the temples are where all the technology sits, including the battery, while the back end is made of rubber. This is where two of the five electroencephalography (EEG) sensors live.
The other three make up the nose bridge; one of top of your nose and two to the sides of it. Together, these sensors track your brain waves in real time.
The right temple is also where the charger clips on when you need to power the specs back up. As far as lenses go, you've got ChromaPop lenses with the option for prescription lenses should you want to wear these day-to-day.
As someone who wears prescription glasses when using the computer, and sunglasses while out and about, I have to say wearing the Focus felt a little weird. The nose bridge, especially the sensor that sits on top of your nose, takes a bit of getting used to. There was almost a ticklish feeling when I first started wearing them, but I did get used to it.
What you don't get used to is that those ChromaPop lenses don't do a great job in the sun. They're fine, but I still found myself squinting when the sun hit them just right – and that's not a problem with my day-to-day pair of sunglasses. There's also a weird purple glare when the sun hits you from the side.
The lenses are also a little taller than I prefer, so when I smile my cheeks hit right up against them and lift the glasses off my face a bit. It's not a huge thing, but it can be annoying.
The Focus are a good looking pair of sunglasses, but at times they feel so light that they really don't feel like a pair of $349 glasses. They definitely don't block out the sun like a $349 pair of sunnies should. Now, you're paying most of money that for the tech here, not for how effectively the glasses shade the sun or how premium they feel. Still, it stings to know you could get two pairs of Ray Bans for the price of these.
Lowdown Focus: How it works
The right stalk on the Focus has a little indicator light. If you smack the temple with your finger, or even just pick up the Focus abruptly, that light will flare on to let you know the battery status. If it's green, you're good to go.
Once your glasses are all charged up, you simply put them on and open up the companion app. You'll have to make sure you have some headphones as well. You don't really need them, but I did find it made the experience better.
But getting the Lowdown Focus set up is a bit of a process. You have to work your way through a 14-lesson introductory course – yes, 14 – with each lesson lasting about five to seven minutes.
That course will gradually introduce you to aspects of the Lowdown Focus and companion app. It's like an obligatory video game tutorial, but one that moves at a punishingly glacial pace.
So rather than go through everything from start to finish I just binged a bunch of sessions. As it turns out, you can get tired of focusing and calming yourself. The lessons are simple enough, but I don't recommend moving through all of them; just get familiar with the glasses and move to the lessons about actual focus and meditation. Because of the length of this process though, it might mean you don't unlock the full potential of Lowdown Focus until after an entire week. So hang in there.
Once you do get into a session things are pretty straightforward. You're first presented with a screen to connect your glasses. You simply click on your model and they connect – perfect. Then you're presented with a calibration screen, where a simple visual guide lets you know that all five sensors are working and sensing your brain waves (solid colours mean you're good, while checkered boxes mean you need to adjust the glasses).
Since a pair of glasses are relatively easy to adjust on your face, the setup process is a bit easier than with the Muse headband. However, just like the headset, your facial and head movements will throw it off and interrupt your sessions – so be sure to keep still.
When you start your session, a calm and soothing voice will offer some guidance. He'll tell you to focus on your diaphragm as you inhale, then to concentrate on your body relaxing as you exhale. Once you're in a rhythm, he'll drop you into the actual breathing session, where the sounds will react to how well you focus. Calm waves will play when you're focused; should you start to lose focus, stormy winds will rumble in. It was difficult to tell if all of this actually worked.
There were multiple moments where I was clearly calm and focused and the storm arrived anyway. I would also try to not focus on anything, or – even better – not do anything at all. But it would keep fluctuating. This can get frustrating if you're seriously trying to calm yourself and the stormy wind is still going no matter what you do. Things didn't always feel in sync.
I will say that the production value on getting you into the mood is very good –I could listen to this guy read me War And Peace. The ocean waves are incredibly calming, and the stormy winds are just grating enough to make you want to get back to the calm ocean winds, but not so annoying that you lose total control.
As with the original Muse headset, at times it feels like you might not even need its abilities. It feels like you could do all of this by yourself with some meditation or yoga. The benefit of the Muse system is the structure and guidance, which will at least help you get in the zone. At best, the Lowdown Focus and its Muse-powered guidance put me in a zen state where I was ready to go to sleep.
Lowdown Focus: Companion app
The companion app, Smith Focus, is split into five sections. Right up at the top, there's a link to your stats. Below that are four menus: Learn, Do a Session, Scheduled Training and Guided. Unfortunately, save for Learn, all of these features are locked at the beginning.
You'll have to go through the entire 14-lesson introductory course to open these things up. So you could find yourself in a situation where you've been using the Focus for a week but can't access your My Stats page. That's annoying, especially if you just want to jump into a quick session rather than go through your regular course.
Speaking of, the sessions are easily my favourite part. You can set the time and choose the soundscape, though you'll have to unlock more soundscapes by earning XP from completing courses and sessions. For a good long while, you'll just have beach sounds, and will have to wait to unlock Ambient, City, Desert and Forest.
Scheduled Training is exactly as it sounds. You'll come back a couple times a week and do a session, and you'll climb up levels as you tick off achievements. For instance, if you complete three three-minute sessions per week you'll level up from Level 2 to Level 3.
Guided sessions are a bit weird. These are sessions looking to point you in a certain direction. There are four, aimed at helping you sleep, focus, relax and perform. However, none of these actually need the glasses. You can literally just pop in some headphones and listen. Usually, when you start a session, the app makes you connect your glasses and then calibrates them, making sure they're fitted right on your face and the sensors are working. This doesn't happen during the guided sessions.
My Stats suffers from a mistake. On the home screen, it's called My Stats. When you click and enter, it's called My Practice. When you want to redeem XP for an unlock, like a new soundscape, the app tells you to go to My Practice. You wouldn't know where that was by looking at the app's home screen.
Regardless, My Practice is broken up into a couple different segments. There's an area where you can redeem your XP for soundscapes (and that's it). There's an area where you can see your session history by clicking on "See Sessions". Then there's an area where you can… see your sessions history by clicking on a calendar.
Finally, near the bottom there are "Accumulated Session Stats", which show you how many minutes you've been focused, how many recoveries you got (a recovery is when you lose focus and regain it) and how many birds you got (birds are an indication of how calm you are).
If you click "See more" below those stats, you'll see yourself compared to other users. Things like your average session length, average time per week and number of birds per minute. It's interesting to see how you compare to everyone else using Muse's technology.
The companion app is fine, and most of everything is laid out in an easy-to-understand way, but there are a couple of mistakes that make things a little hard or confusing to navigate. But it's the extreme gamification of the glasses that is most frustrating, because it feels like Muse is trying to trick you into coming back rather than the meditation and focus training actually being good enough to draw you back on their own. I think this is a mistake, and I can easily see how people might get so frustrated and give up on the whole thing. Gamifying things makes sense in certain places – like fitness trackers – but here it feels like an unnecessary obstacle to features most people want right out of the box.