Where can digital gadgets take your mind? Good places, not just the dystopian worlds familiar to players of apocalyptic video games like The Last of Us or Left 4 Dead. Technology that lets us get intimate with our brain’s workings offers new ways to explore our internal and external, sleeping and waking worlds. These startups are at the cutting edge of technology that will let us use our minds in new ways.
We know how crucial sleep is to maintaining brain health and overall well-being. Some people want to take their rest a step further by hacking their dreams. Lucid dreaming is the phenomenon in which dreamers are aware that they are dreaming and can exert some control over the dream. The LucidCatcher headband from Luciding contains dry electrodes that zap the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain with mild electrical jolts during REM-phase sleep. Such pulses have been shown to potentially trigger lucid dreaming events in some sleepers, according to research published in Nature Neuroscience in 2014. The first units are scheduled to ship in January 2018.
Ditch the joystick and play video games with your mind. Neurable recently introduced the world’s first brain-computer interface game, Awakening, a collaboration with Madrid-based VR graphics studio estudiofuture. Neurable customized an HTC Vive VR headset with its own strap that houses seven electrodes to record brain activity, using electroencephalography. The data is interpreted by Neurable’s machine-learning software platform to decipher what the wearer wants to do—pick up a block, for example—and makes that possible within the game. Naturally, the game features a child with telekinetic powers—one who has been a prisoner in a government laboratory and uses these powers to escape. Players use their minds to manipulate objects in the game and battle robot guards. The company plans to introduce a longer version of the game to VR arcades in 2018.
Technology is getting better at making us whole—and then some. Digital implants can help people regain the function of injured organs or enhance typical human abilities. We’re not full cyborg yet, but that may be only a matter of time.
Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System
Lose a leg, and there are prostheses that can help you regain mobility. But until now, there has been little recourse for someone who loses their eyesight.
The Argus II by Second Sight is a retinal implant that stimulates limited vision. Patients wear a tiny video camera connected to a pair of eyeglasses. It transmits visuals to a video-processing unit (also worn by the patient), which in turn sends information to an antenna housed in the implant. An electrode array in the implant releases small electrical pulses, which activate cells in the retina, and sends the visual information along the optic nerve to the brain. The device enables patients to see light, motion, and colors; some users have even been able to read one- to two-inch letters from a foot away.
The North Sense
The standard five senses aren’t enough for some people. For them, Cyborg Nest, which calls itself the world’s first commercial biohacking company, offers a sixth: magnetoreception, which is the ability to feel the earth’s magnetic field. The North Sense is a US$425 device that contains a computer chip and two titanium bars that, when implanted under the skin, vibrate every time the wearer is facing magnetic north. The accompanying app is used to calibrate the device and change the vibration settings.
The exosense-creating device, which is waterproof and charged through a USB, isn’t just for enhancing our sense of direction. It’s a first step toward creating new senses. Together with Cyborg Nest’s co-founders, a community of like-minded biohackers are adopting devices like the “eyeborg” that can “hear” the light spectrum and an implantable sensor that vibrates whenever there’s an earthquake. They want to change the way they perceive the world and potentially change the way they experience reality. There are 300 North Sense owners to date.
Even slight adjustments in training can make or break an athlete’s career. That’s why performance science—the study of human athletic performance—has been integrated into devices that use brain stimulation and data analytics to give elite competitors the right pre- and post-exertion training.
The San Francisco Giants have used it, and so have the Golden State Warriors, top American cyclist Andrew Talansky, and Olympic sprinter Natasha Hastings. The Halo Sport from Halo Neuroscience is a set of headphones that uses “neuropriming,” a form of electrical brain stimulation, to improve elite athletes’ performance. Electrodes embedded in the soft foam that pads the headphones’ headband deliver current to the motor cortex—the part of the brain that directs movement—to help neurons fire more quickly. Halo Sport users wear the headphones for 20-minute sessions, hoping to improve a host of performance essentials, including endurance, strength, focus, and precision. The company is also studying using the device with stroke rehab patients.
Post-performance recovery is just as important as preparation. To help athletes get optimal rest, the Whoop wristband and app collect and analyze up to 100MBs of vital signs data each day, including heart rate, heart rate variability (the time variation between heart beats), and body temperature. It also tracks sleep time and quality. The wearer gets an individualized measurement, called “Strain,” that records how much effort the day’s activities took and that is used to create recommendations for the most appropriate workout and the right amount of sleep.
Read more thought provoking articles in the latest issue of the Digitalist Magazine, Executive Quarterly.