Cool Tech
InteraXon
Muse Headband and Calm App

By Jorge Figueiredo - May 2nd, 2014

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Without a doubt, almost everyone I talk to these days complains about being busy – myself included. Between work, children, dwelling upkeep, extra-curricular activities (like volunteer work), and social schedules, it’s no wonder that people rely on their calendars and scheduling apps to make sense of time. You, the reader, can probably sympathize, as you are probably busy, too1; and, like many, probably have trouble trying to calm your mind (which can make sleep a challenging prospect) . InteraXon, a Toronto-based company, has an interesting solution to help train your mind to settle (and have a little fun, too), hopefully giving you a way to cut through the noise of a busy state of mine and aid you in focusing and relaxing your brain. It’s an application called Calm, and it works in tandem with their brain-sensing headband called Muse (which was an Indiegogo success). Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to visit InteraXon, and take Muse and Calm for a spin.

I was welcomed to the office by Dani Cullimore, one of the researcher wizards at InteraXon, and shown around the workplace. There was a productive vibe in the air, as folks were quietly working away. Dani then showed me to a small room, where I sat in a comfortable hard-backed chair and was given a Muse, a set of headphones, and an iPod Touch running the Calm application. After ensuring that Muse was paired with the iPod Touch, Dani indicated that the app would guide me through the process, and allowed me some solitude to investigate this neat technology.

Muse is a brain-sensing headband which functions as a mental fitness tool, in that it monitors your brain activity (by detecting the spontaneous activity of neurons in your brain) and provides a data stream of what it is sensing to software written by InteraXon – in this case, the Calm app (which asks you to register an account to keep track of your data). Muse is a far cry from what you would think that brainwave-detecting should look like. It is sleek and light, and comfortable to wear. It slides over and behind your ears, much like a pair of glasses, and the band goes across the middle of your forehead. It has seven sensors: three baseline sensors in the centre of you’re forehead, another pair (one on each side of the baseline sensors), and the last two are located in the rubber of the ends of the band that go over your ears. Charging Muse is accomplished via two charging ports (located at the ends of the headband).

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The product.

One of the first things that Calm teaches you how to do is wear the headband properly, as it is highly important to have a good connection to get useful feedback. Those with long hair (or longish bangs) will have a little more work to do than us buzz-cut people. Thankfully, a good fit is easy to attain thanks to the Muse’s constant feedback. Displayed in the lower left corner is a connection guide, which shows the five sensor areas (the baseline and the four other areas), each in a different colour. Each area on the little display has three states: no connection (the associated area will be blank); a weak connection (coloured outline in the associated area); and a good connection (the associated area is filled in). Should Calm be showing a blank or two, or an improperly filled-in area, you’ll have to make some adjustments to the headband to ensure that you have a good fit. Personally, I just had to retract the arms of the Muse when I first got it, which too all of ten seconds.

Once properly fitted, Calm will guide you through its calibration process. The app will instruct you to close your eyes and then will provide you with three categories. Each category is presented separately (with twenty seconds of silence following each prompt), and you are asked to think about as many items as you can related to the category mentioned. Categories can be anything from “animals” to “exotic locations” – but there is currently a list of about twenty topics that the app can pick from. The prompts are different for each session, preventing you from habituating to the same stimuli and allowing for a more accurate reading. After Calm has been calibrated, the session moves into the next phase.

The app begins with the sound of the gentle lapping of waves on a shore as a soft breeze can be heard in the background. The idea of this phase is to calm your mind by focusing on your breathing. While breathing normally, you are supposed to count every exhale, increasing your awareness of yourself. The water, as far as I can tell, serves as a way to keep you grounded. The wind, on the other hand, is an indicator of your mental state. If your mind is busy, the wind will pick up – the busier your thoughts, the more forceful the air flow. Obviously the goal is to keep your mind calm, focusing on as few things as possible, with the wind level letting you know how you’re doing. The app informs you that if you find yourself getting side-tracked, you should start counting from “1” again.

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The breakdown of a session.

My first experience with the main session in Calm was an interesting three minutes. While the app instructs you not to worry about the sound of the breeze, I almost immediately went into a negative feedback loop. I started counting my exhales and the breeze was fairly light. After a few breaths, I was feeling pretty good about myself, and then started wondering how well the headband would detect changes in my mind. Almost immediately, the breeze started picking up. Suddenly, my mental center shifted, and I began to mildly freak out about my mental state – and for every disconnected thought that I had about my disconnected thoughts, the wind increased until it sounded like I was standing on the edge of a hurricane. After what felt like ages, I ended up finding my center again and the breeze went back to a relatively normal velocity. When the session ended, I wasn’t surprised to see that my mind was in a “neutral” state for most of the three minutes, with slightly less time being in an active state or a state of calmness (which were, surprisingly, roughly equal in measure). The breakdown of information is thorough, and as I scrolled through the different tabs, I found out that if I could remain in a state of mental relaxation for long enough, I might hear birds landing nearby.

My second trip into calm-land played out differently than my first foray. Now that I understood that I didn’t need to get worked up, I relaxed into the chair and just focused on my breathing. As I did so, I noticed that birds started chirping, and as my breathing continued, I heard a few land nearby. During one of the landings, I got a bit excited and the wind started to pick up; but for the most part, there was barely more than a gentle breeze, and at times: silence. It was a very wonderful experience, and the results were indicative of this. Almost all of my time in the second three-minute session was spent in a state of calmness, with very little neutrality or over-active thinking.

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More details into a session.

Calm keeps track of all of your activity, and allows you to check out trends in your daily readings as well as your overall progress. Calm also allows you to do 3, 5, 7, and 12 minute sessions (multiple times, if you choose). The fun that I referred to at the beginning of this article is the mild gaming aspect of Calm. As you take part in sessions, you gain points (with more points being awarded for having focus); these points unlock various aspects of the Calm application, which gives the user a little bit of incentive to use the application often right out of the gate. Given that we spend almost half of the day thinking about things other than the various tasks at hand, the ability to help train your brain to focus should really be its own reward – but InteraXon has a bit of fun with this.

As I left their office, my mind was buzzing with the possibilities of all of the neat things that InteraXon could do. Being able to teach ourselves to focus is a great thing, but one can’t help but wonder what the future of such a product has in store. While we are years and years away from being able to control our devices solely with our minds (like selecting songs from a playlist, or playing first-person-shooters), the data collected by the Calm app (which you voluntarily choose to release – with the source remaining anonymous) will contribute to the knowledge pool of one of the greatest biological mysteries that we have on hand (or in mind). In the mean time, it would be cool if InteraXon could take a few more steps into the gaming world by introducing some neat games – like a Calm Tug-of-War (where two people do a session at the same time and attempt to each be more focused than the other), or a racing-type game powered by focus – but that’s just my busy mind taking over.

You can check out more about InteraXon here.

1 – Thanks for making us a part of your day!

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