Skip to main content
digital wellness

Ariel Garten demonstrates how she uses her company’s Muse product. The $299 wearable brain technology has racked up $3.5-million in sales since its launch about five months ago.Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

This is the seventh story in a nine-part series on the emerging wave of new-generation technology that monitors our health.

While you may wonder what's on Ariel Garten 's mind, that thing on her head already knows.

"It's a brain health tool," says Ms. Garten, speaking of Muse, which sits on the user's forehead like a misplaced set of headphones.

"It helps you with meditation and mindfulness, sleep, stress, anxiety and more," explains Ms. Garten, a neuroscientist and co-founder and CEO of Toronto-based InteraXon, which created and produces Muse.

The $299 wearable brain technology, available in retail stores only in Canada (and online elsewhere) until now, has racked up $3.5-million in sales since its launch about five months ago.

Muse is one of several brain-sensing technology products that offer a tantalizing glimpse of a future in which wearable devices know more and more about what we are thinking.

Another product, called Emotiv (in $299 (U.S.) and $399 versions), analyzes brainwaves to track a user's level of engagement or interest in what they're thinking, and lets users move or levitate virtual objects using thought commands.

An Emotiv wearer can raise an outstretched palm and make an object on a screen rise; paired with a laptop, the device has enabled a wheelchair user to move a motorized chair using only his mind – no keystrokes.

"Brainwave technology is developing really quickly," says Sarah Housley, an editor and trend expert at WGSN Homebuildlife, a forecasting service that provides advice to the technology sector.

It's still a ways off, but it may be possible eventually for people to wear devices that translate foreign languages directly into their thoughts, or to communicate complex ideas with little or no speaking – perhaps a new twist for those couples who say "we finish each other's sentences."

"We could probably skip the verbal language translation and go straight to communicating through thoughts," Housley says. "We might all have to learn a simple common language to do this, though, like we already have with emoji [happy faces and other emoticons]."

The frontiers are expanding. "Current experiments translate thoughts into bursts of light that you can see at the edge of your field of vision," she says. "This same concept could certainly help you to learn physical skills like drawing – with brain control, you could potentially create 'automatic' drawing, where what's in your head goes straight onto the page."

Wearable technology might even be able to help tuneless or clumsy people sing and dance better.

"But you'd still have to practise," Housley says.

In 2013, the Journal of Neural Engineering reported on a toy helicopter that engineers from the University of Minnesota flew through an obstacle course, using only their thoughts. The thought-pilots used a form-fitting cap filled with electrodes that can detect brainwaves that are translated into commands.

For all these advances, Garten believes that, "the thought-control aspect of the technology is still many years out. Right now it's not meaningful, it's fun."

What is meaningful now to Garten is what she calls "response technology." Her Muse headbands are paired with an app called Calm that provides brain exercises that Garten says can help people focus and cope.

"There have been thousands of studies on focus-attention exercise, and how it improves everything from blood pressure to productivity to helping traders trade more effectively," she says.

When users slip the device onto their heads, it collects and transmits clinical grade data using seven electroencephalographic (EEG) sensors. The sensors collect the electrical impulses given off by the brain and send them via Bluetooth to the app, which calibrates the information so it can design exercises for you.

The app will lead a user through a breathing exercise that usually takes between three and 12 minutes. Stressed users will hear wind through the earbuds and see stormy weather on their phone, tablet or laptop. Relax and the sound and pictures get calmer.

The app fine-tunes the exercises by collecting data over multiple sessions.

Wearable response technology will become less invasive, Garten predicts, perhaps attached to a pair of glasses – or maybe a new smart watch.

Ironically, it will be able to help people cope with the little irritants that technology now brings. "So your phone will know that you're asleep and stop running, or your e-mail will know that you're hyperfocused on something and stop popping up," she says.

According to a 2010 study by Harvard University psychologists Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert, people spend nearly 47 per cent of their waking hours thinking about things other than what they are doing, and this makes them unhappy.

Garten says she has been relying on her own device during a recent hectic working trip to Europe that took her to Britain, Germany, Spain and Israel in just more than a week. "I'm recharging everything now," she said from a hotel room in London.