“We have sensors that track our sleep. We have sensors that track our steps. But there’s something that’s really missing,” says Ariel Garten. “Something that really determines how well you sleep, how many calories you burn, how good you feel the next day. And that’s what goes on in your mind.”
Garten is the CEO and co-founder of InteraXon, the Toronto startup behind the Muse brain-wave sensing headset which just launched in Canada after six years in development. Garten and fellow InteraXon team members were at the MaRS building on September 25 for the official Toronto launch of Muse.
Muse is a unique device that slips on like a pair of glasses. It has five electroencephalography (or EEG) sensors that record the brain’s electrical activity. This data is fed into the user’s mobile phone, which can determine the individual’s level of relaxation and focus.
While there are many potential uses for this technology, the headband is currently used as a form of assisted meditation. Tellingly, it is sold at Canadian bookstore chain Indigo, and through yoga and wellness brand Gaiam. Unlike austere mindfulness exercises, however, it makes a game of mental relaxation.
There are new games in development that feed on brain data, but the standard Muse game, “Muse Calm,” places the user on a beach. When they are calm, the user sees a peaceful beach on the screen. However, as mental disturbances enter the mind, the user will see waves form and the wind pick up.
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The Muse Calm app is designed to guide users to mental calmness.
InterXon had originally intended for its brainwave sensor technology to help people interact with the physical world. For instance, it had created a chair that levitates and a version of the addictive “Ktarian game” featured in Star Trek TNG. During the 2010 Winter Olympics, InterXon took it to another scale, allowing people to control the lights of the CN Tower, Niagara Falls and the Parliament Buildings with their minds.
[aesop_content color=”#ffffff” background=”#333333″ columns=”1″ position=”none” imgrepeat=”no-repeat” floaterposition=”left” floaterdirection=”up”]Developers interested in using Muse as a way of adding brain input to their applications have a set of tools available to work with Muse.
Yet, when it came to building Muse, the focus was not on experiencing something physical, but rather teaching the mind how to be calm and focused. And this seems especially appropriate given the constant barrage of email, phone alerts and online curiosities that make it difficult for many of us to unwind.
In a public discussion with WeAreWearables founder Tom Emrich, the team behind Muse discussed the design considerations behind Muse and the accompanying Muse Calm app.
Given the backlash against products like Google Glass, wearable technologies need to be mindful that their design doesn’t rub people the wrong way. Garten, who has a background in fashion design, explains, “For us it was very important to make something that was a fashion item – something that you felt comfortable walking down the street wearing, so we did extensive user testing.”
While her original conception was something that looked more futuristic and asymmetrical, testers didn’t like these sorts of prototypes. “The feedback we got was that people liked things that are symmetrical, they liked things that were balanced. Things that looked like something they already had.”
The simple headband was it.
[aesop_image imgwidth=”100%” img=”http://labto.wpengine.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/vlcsnap-2014-09-29-21h27m39s86.png” align=”left” lightbox=”on” caption=”On stage at We Are Wearables meetup at Toronto’s MaRS Discovery District. From Left: Raul Rupsingh, Jay Vidyarthi, Trevor Coleman, Ariel Garten.” captionposition=”right”]
Next, it was important to create an interaction within Muse Calm that subtly helps users reach a state of restfulness, without disrupting their calmness.
“People needed a way to experience the technology,” says Interaxon co-founder and Chief Product Officer Trevor Coleman.
He came up with the “metaphor” of the beach when thinking about a Zen koan: Basically, two monks were looking at a flag blowing in the wind. One said the flag was moving, and the other said the wind was moving. Unable to agree among themselves, they asked the Zen Master who said, “only mind is moving.”
Advanced users will find that, if they are very still, birds would come. This was an element added by Jay Vidyarthi, InteraXon’s senior interaction designer, who saw the birds being another element of feedback that people found useful. He explains wanting and not wanting the bird in the video below.
There’s no doubt that hearing people talk about the experience of Muse makes you think – what are they smoking? But it might just be because we’re so unused to technology helping bring us – for lack of a better term – enlightenment.
Coleman, however, notes that Muse isn’t a quick fix or an “instant meditation machine”. He sees it more like a treadmill. It helps you work on a specific aspect of yourself, but you have to put effort into it.
“When we looked at this as a way where we could get people to actually improve their lives, I think giving people information is important, but you’ve got to give them something actionable that they can do,” he says. “With this interaction specifically, people sit down, they engage with us.”
Garten, who is the supernaturally calm and focused like a yoga instructor, says meaningful change can come about through how one thinks and feels about the world.
For instance, one customer is a woman who uses Muse to deal with the stress of her husband’s cancer. The relaxation exercises helps her be a more supportive partner, and kinder to the people around her despite her unfortunate situation.
Gaten sees this as “an opportunity to allow people for the first time to understand their own mind, and use that information to improve themselves.”
This shrunk-down and stylish EEG sensor also has the potential to draw from a large source of anonymized data, which could help researchers better understand stress symptoms in the general population, not just from lab tests.
Depending on your perspective, this technology could be exciting – or calming.