I have to confess to being a little nervous as I prepared to try on Thync for the first time. I've been after a trial of the brain-zapping wearable for over a year and had chased down its creators in Las Vegas during CES, and set up a meeting. But as we attached the sticky pad to my head, my synapses and nerves felt… vulnerable.
To the uninitiated, Thync is a Bluetooth connected wearable that's placed on the head and links to a smartphone app. It uses ultrasound to activate parts the central nervous system with 'Vibes' – pre-set digital supplements that are designed to calm or energise you.
We're streaming digital content to the nervous system
And heaven knows I needed some of that energy vibe. The meeting was set for 5.15pm in the Hard Rock Hotel casino. In true CES style I'd spent the last three days with killer jetlag and had rolled in at 5am that night before waking up two hours later for meetings. My mind and body were exhausted: perfect fodder for Thync.
Essential reading: How Thync merges biology and tech
Jamie Tyler was waiting for me. I'd spoken to Isy Goldwasser (the company's CEO) before, but Jamie is the science guy and it's his body of research that powers Thync's technology. Tyler is casual and friendly, and switches in and out of his visions for the product and heavy neuroscientific research into synaptic transmission and plasticity, with his thick southern drawl.
Team Thync: Jamie Tyler (left) and Isy Goldwasser
"This is really the world's first digital supplement, which is really cool. It's really basic with real drug like actions. Digital Red Bull – it's cool right?" he enthused. He's right – it is cool.
Tyler revealed that he had been in the same nightclub I had been in the night before. However, he had his Thync attached to his temple and was working on an experimental new Vibe that enabled him to 'see' strobe lights, as the device's pulses fired the nerves that controlled his vision.
"We've done the science and we know more or less the times the receptors we're acting on. We're coupling to your nerves and literally streaming from a phone that is modulating your nerves directly," Tyler said.
"We're streaming digital content to the nervous system."
The simplest way to explain Thync is to take you through my experience, but first I wanted to calm my nerves, and ask Tyler the question everyone does: is it safe?
"I think it's totally safe, it's low risk. If you look at the history of people applying electrical currents to their body, there's 50 years worth of learnings. You can now go down to Walgreens or CBS and for $30 buy a device that Shaquille O'Neil has endorsed and uses five times the amount of current we do. You can already buy that on the shelf."
The Thync unit from behind
Thync isn't FDA approved, although Tyler rubbished claims that meant it wasn't checked. "Of course they're aware of what we're doing," he said. "But they categorise it 'low risk.'"
I didn't think the unit would be that powerful. This tech isn't messing around
"We had several people who used the device every day for a couple of years, they went through four neurological exams, an MRI every day - they totally checked out fine. I think over time it will prove out that it's incredibly safe.
"One of the questions we often get is 'do you need more intensity over time?' There's no indication of that. Once you find what we call the sweet spot, you're there."
Tyler asked whether I'd like to start off with a calming or energising Vibe – and my answer was obvious. Thync works by clipping onto a reusable sticky pad, which must be placed on the head first. The Vibes require different pads to focus the unit's energy on different areas of the brain, and the calm pad sticks to the temple, but then attaches behind the ear and all the way down to the back of the neck.
The two sticky pads are placed onto the skin
Once the pad's in place you clip on the Thync unit itself and get it paired to the Bluetooth app.
Next you choose a Vibe: calm or energy. Within those options are more specific options within that range. We chose an introduction to energy Vibe, but there are much more extreme versions. Tyler told me that energy was a lot more intense that chill, and that I'd feel an itching on my head and to increase the power until it felt like a physical tapping on my temple.
Just before workouts people are running energy Vibes and you can see an improvement. We're seeing anywhere from 3% to 5% improvement in output, and for an elite athlete that's huge
Tyler walked off and left me to it. In my hand was his iPhone with a + and – button to turn up and down the strength of the ultrasound pulses on my brain and we started going through the gears.
At 40% I felt nothing, and as we reached 50% there was that itching. The sensation was more like a tightness in my skin. Tyler told me that 70% was where the magic happened but at 65% it felt uncomfortable, a strange sensation behind my eye bothered me. When he returned Tyler told me to stick below 60%, and that everyone had different sweet spots. I didn't think the unit would be that powerful. This tech isn't messing around.
Feeling the effects
So how did I feel? Well, I hadn't noticed the difference until I consciously evaluated myself, but it sure had worked. My mind felt bright, clear and alert. It was digital caffeine, just as Tyler had said. You don't notice it working. Three hour's sleep followed by nine hours of meetings down and I was ready to tackle a load more work before a dinner meeting. I was ready to go.
But Tyler wasn't done. For him, the chill vibe was a must-try. The gentler sensation let me power up higher, yet I felt very little at first. He returned to check I was okay after four minutes and I hinted that it wasn't working. Perhaps it was because I just did the energy Vibe? Tyler pointed out I was slumped in the chair, my facial muscles had relaxed, I was bobbing my head to the terrible music being played out around the casino. He asked me to think of something that stressed me out. The huge article I had to write before dinner didn't seem such a problem.
Thync hits sports
So where does Thync go from here?
"We have a lot of traction in fitness," Tyler told me as we sat down after my demos. "We're working with pro-sports teams and celebrity fitness trainers, so there will be another set of Vibes in the app for fitness.
Thync is testing its tech on athletes
"There will be a warm up, warm down, rest and recovery vibe. We want to optimise mental and physical performance, because we can affect that. Sleep and recovery after games, we can affect that. Take Major League Baseball - the schedules are insane, and it's the same in soccer, you're jazzed up after the game.
"Just before workouts, people are running energy Vibes and you can see an improvement. We're seeing anywhere from 3% to 5% improvement in output, and for an elite athlete that's huge; the difference between gold and silver medal can be a thousandth of a second," he continued.
"Over time we will offer premium Vibes where we partner with professional athletes. They can then offer their own Vibes to download. Sports stars can say 'Hey, if you wanna work out then try my special Vibe; this is what I do'."
It's been slow going for Thync and it has a long way to go to hit anything like mass adoption. But as I sat in a casino adjusting the power of my energy Vibe, I looked around at others who didn't bat an eyelid at the unit on my head.
Will the day come where people sit and enjoy a Vibe like a coffee, beer or a cigarette? Could I pop into a Vibe cafe for an energy hit and read the morning paper? It would be pretty awesome – but the idea still makes me a little nervous.