20 MAY 13 by MEGAN GEUSS
On 13 May, Ars Technica showed up at a demo day for the painful-to-read HAXLR8R (pronounced hack-celerator). It’s a startup accelerator program that takes ten teams of entrepreneurs, gives them $25,000 (£16,500), and flies them between San Francisco and Shenzhen to work on a hardware-based product of their design.
Most of the products were still in progress so many teams spent demo day courting VC funders or imploring the crowd to visit their Kickstarter campaign. But Foc.us, a company founded by mechanical engineers Michael Oxley and Martin Skinner, actually had its product launch that day. Their Foc.us headset is a device that’s meant to shock your brain with electricity — and make you a better gamer because of it.
The headset is a red or black band that goes around the back of your head with four disks that are placed on your forehead, just above your eyebrows. The disks contain electrodes beneath small circular sponges soaked in saline solution. When the headset turns on (via a physical button in the back or a companion iOS app), you get a shock to the prefrontal cortex that can rage from 0.8 to 2.0 mA. For context, a hearing aid usually runs on about 0.7 mA — but you’re not directing that electricity into your head.
The technique, which Oxley and Skinner say they read about in articles the year before, is called transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS). As the science blog The Last Word on Nothing wrote in early 2012, “US military researchers have had great success using transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) — in which they hook you up to what’s essentially a 9-volt battery and let the current flow through your brain. After a few years of lab testing, they’ve found that they can more than double the rate at which people learn a wide range of tasks such as object recognition, maths skills, and marksmanship.”
Obviously, you could use the Foc.us headset for anything, but Oxley and Skinner said they’re keeping their marketing focus narrow to stay within various regulations for the time being.
You can start and stop Foc.us manually with a button at the rear of the headset, and it will run for 10 minutes before it automatically shuts off. Using the app (which is only for iOS right now, but the creators say they’re working on an Android version) you can set intervals between five and 40 minutes without touching the hardware. In an email, Oxley wrote that Foc.us, “actually had a lot of feedback from non-Apple owners and so [we] are looking at adding extra configurability to the touch sensor behaviour.”
While Oxley and Skinner said they wear their headsets all the time and haven’t noticed any issues with decreased sensitivity to the voltage, Foc.us is only meant to stimulate working memory. Only short periods of use are encouraged. In an email to Ars, Oxley told us that the tDCS modes on Foc.us include settings like “constant current, wave (current rises and falls), pulse (like wave but different shape), noise (random jumps in current) and sham — where current starts but then stops whilst device appears to remain active — to test for placebo effect.”
I tried the headset on at the huge space that HAXLR8R rented out in downtown San Francisco. It fit comfortably and the headset has a crescendo start, so it wasn’t jolting (pun intended) when the headset turned on. Unfortunately, Foc.us didn’t have a gaming rig set up at demo day, so I can’t tell you whether it actually improves performance. I can say that I started feeling a very noticeable, but somewhat pleasant shock in the rear left of my brain in addition to a light buzzy feeling all over my head. I also started seeing white spots in my peripheral vision, especially in my upper right view. If you are epileptic, do not use this headset. (On the website, Foc.us also says people younger than 18 years old should not use the headset. Sorry to all minors who are also Ars readers.)
I guess I felt more focused, but without a game controller or a sniper rifle in my hand it’s hard to say. Your experience may vary depending on your tolerance for weird brain feelings. Wired.com writer Alexandra Chang attended the demo day as well and the white spots bugged her a lot more than they did me.
In my experience, the initial resistance to the idea of purposely sending electricity through my brain was hard to get over. I actually kind of dreaded it. I told myself on the commute to San Francisco that if there’s a power surge and I go blind, at least I’ll be going blind for journalism. Ultimately though, it wasn’t scary or painful, and the research seems sound — Oxley sent me three articles on tDCS from three separate scientific journals and said his team worked with a neuroscientist friend to perfect the design.
Foc.us is on sale now at the company’s website for $250 plus $10 in shipping (£179 in the UK), and the company is planning to ship in July of this year. (The company’s site also has a lot of images of a model wearing the headset and posing in improbably beautiful locations with a game controller, if you need more of a visual). The battery is non-removable, but you can charge it with a micro-USB cable. It comes with eight reusable sponges, a saline bottle, a soft protective carry-case, and an instruction booklet.
It’s hard to recommend a gadget that I wore for a couple minutes and didn’t actually get to test. But it is a unique concept at an accessible price for hard-core enthusiasts, a bit of science fiction turned science fact.
This story originally appeared on ars technica. Click through for more images of the Foc.us headset
Edited by KADHIM SHUBBER