Startup Humm started life building reusable neurostimulation headbands to help esports teams get the best from the brains of their star gamers. Now it wants everyone to get in on the brain zapping action.
It’s planning to launch single-use smart patches as a memory aid for everyday use. Founder Iain McIntyre tells us the patches are, “as simple as a bandaid”. Humm’s bands look like tastefully pastel-coloured sticking plasters. But you do have to stick it onto your forehead to reap the benefits.
Essential reading: Neuroscience wearables explained
Humm will be launching with a subscription model because it accepts it needs to get the technology onto as many people’s heads as possible. Pre-orders are for packs of 12 patches, which will cost $60, or $5 per single-use patch. Delivery is slated for early 2020.
How the Humm patch works
The patch was born from an idea for a, “very different, scientific product”, according to McIntyre. One that would have ended up costing thousands of dollars. Over the course of hundreds of prototypes and tests, this idea was simplified and made into a headband-looking patch using neurostimulation rather than trying to cram in other bells and whistles.
Humm is confident enough in the research process that underpins it too. That research was conducted as part of the SkyDeck accelerator programme at UC Berkeley. It went so far as to release a white paper detailing it in full, which is the sort of disclosure that will help to build trust.
We’ve all just come to accept that as we age, we learn more slowly. Humm’s mission is to change that
But what will the wearable actually do? The band could help you to remember the details of what you’re reading with more accuracy. It could help you to switch contexts more readily, or could just aid concentration. Of course, as with any such product, your mileage may vary. McIntyre is happy to admit that everyone will have a slightly different experience with Humm, but backs himself up with the white paper stat that 95% of users respond to the neurostimulation being used.
So what exactly do we mean by neurostimulation? In simple terms, the patch sits on your forehead and stimulates the front of your brain by emitting a tiny electric pulse, a method known as tACS. This ripples through your brain and encourages neurons to resonate together at the same frequency. Each use yields 15-30 minutes of increased efficiency, which should be enough to help a short study session but won’t get you through War And Peace.
A memory boost
McIntyre believes that although it has users of practically all ages, those who tend to find it most useful are subject to that spectre hanging over so many of us – memory loss. “The person who enjoys Humm most is having it solve emotional pain, someone whose memory is deteriorating,” he said.
That person will likely be aged 40-70, someone who now wants to forget less and be able to stay quick on their mental feet. “We’ve all just come to accept that as we age, we learn more slowly. Humm’s mission is to change that,” said McIntyre.
But ageing boomers aren’t Humm’s only targets by a distance. It’s in the progress of a partnership with the US Air Force that could eventually see fighter pilots wearing its bands in flight. That may sound extremely dramatic but, for now, the 1,050 bands the Air Force has ordered will be used in coursework and academies to help recruits learn. However, in time the bands could be deployed in simulators.
The Air Force sounds niche, but Humm is also exploring partnerships in the worlds of insurance and academic tutoring – two areas where mental agility can affect financial situations fairly directly.
McIntyre is open about the long process that Humm has been through to get to a device for the masses. It doesn't want Humm to be seen as a performance enhancing piece of kit, hence the move away from the competitive esport scene.
Moreover, he's happy to admit that the current patches are very much the gateway to the longer-term goal of producing that reusable, high-quality product that Humm was first aimed at. This reusable headset is still out there on the horizon for Humm, provided it continues to find success.
Humm's success will surely come down to whether it can back up its claims to help your concentration and memory improve. Hopefully we can slap on one of the patches when it's landed to see if it can give us really that big memory boost.
How we test