Do or Do Not: The Neurosky Mind Set


I've taken the day off to take care of the family. I just got our 3 year-old girl down for a nap (no easy task) and I notice that there's a package for me at the door. It's the NeuroSky MindSet. Awesome. Perfect timing, I think. Getting a free moment to do anything becomes a challenge once you have a family so I'm super excited that I discovered this during nap-break. I was going to plan the week and do the laundry but obviously that’s out of the question now. The first thing I do after taking it out of the box is inspect the device itself. The grey Power, Play and Phone buttons on the headset look a little cheap but as a whole it feels decent enough. I start to play with wearing it and while the disk churns away, installing the software, I figure it's a good idea to read the paperwork that came with it. This proves to be a quick job, being only 1 sheet of folded paper. The gist of it reads as follows:

1. Don't wear the device while charging it or you will possibly electrocute yourself.

2. Don't use it until you've fully charged it with the accompanying USB cable.


My inner harpy cries out in terribly disappointment. But I suppose I should have expected that a wireless headset would need to be charged. I've got to wait. But how long? The instruction sheet tells me, until the red LED turns off.

While waiting, I hit the NeuroSky marketplace to download all the free apps I can get my hands on so I will have a software arsenal to use in testing out the hardware.

Now, I have to tell you, I am a busy father, a computer programmer and, in the great PC vs. Mac debate, I'm a Mac. One of the things that drew me to the NeuroSky line of Brainwave Sensors is the fact that the MindSet device is platform agnostic. That means that they can run on any machine: Mac, PC, Android, iOS, any device that supports bluetooth. They also offer a totally free and open source Software Development Kit (SDK), which instantly sold me on their line. Conversely, Emotiv, a competitor that I had been following with great interest, initially interested in the ability to convert thoughts to emoticons, has a closed source SDK, which they charge a massive licensing fee for, which also only runs on Windows. That difference alone was enough for me to run screaming from Emotiv, into the arms of NeuroSky.

Sadly, there's a very small set of free or paid apps available at this time. Totally expected. It's a niche market and you have to be a super geek to write software to support a Brainwave reading device. But I grab the half-dozen free apps.

Now, I've got all the software waiting and the device is still red. When my daughter wakes up an hour and a half later, it's still charging. Now I'm sucked back into normal life: Spring Cleaning, laundry, taking the kid to the playground, making dinner, all finally capping out at bedtime for the little one, which takes over an hour by itself and leaves me coming back to the device after 9pm. By this time, thankfully, it's charged--but I can't say how long it took. However, 10 days later, I can say that I've gotten several hours of use out of it and it's still going strong.

Exhausted from a typical day off, I don the headset and startup the Brainwave Visualizer, one of two bundled apps. The visualizer provides a bit of eye-candy for the brainwave analysis, giving you the ability to toggle a few different rendering modes--but with all the fancy rendering, I can't tell which mode is giving me better information, or if I'm actually getting useful information at all. The application window presents a circle of brainwave frequency ranges, "Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Theta" with a dynamically reshaping circle extending out to show the power of each in the present moment. Next to this image is the same set of data but shown in bar chart format, which looks like a music equalizer with a pulse line flowing through it. Beneath that image are two knobs going from 0 to 100. One says "Attention", the other says "Meditation". As the knobs move themselves from zero to 100, I can't tell why. The frequency ranges are bouncing wildly and I can't figure out which range (or combination of range values) controls which labeled state of mind.

The app calls out, "Please start playing a song in iTunes." OK, I'll bite. I pick out “Kids” by MGMT. The app recognizes that the song is playing and allows me to record the readings and save the data for later (though I haven’t figured out how to use this). Sounds neat. Soon after the song starts, I notice the meditation nob push all the way up to 100. When it reaches somewhere in the 90 to 100 zone it starts playing this supposedly zen-like chime music on top of the musical track--and it's LOUD. So loud that I freak out and the meditation nob pops back down to zero, thankfully killing that wretched noise. Unfortunately, the nob quickly bounces back to 100 and I suffer it again. I pound mute on my laptop and look everywhere in the app for sound preferences. None. No volume control, nothing to tell me how this "Meditation" ranking is calculated. It's all a miserable mystery.

I discover through accidentally clicking on one of the dynamic graphics that each section shows an information blurb when you click on it. Sadly, none of the blurbs contain the information I need. However, the Brainwave Power Spectrum comes with a little disclaimer that it adds dynamic scaling of the EEG and voltage levels to make it pretty. Great, I think, it's lying to me. It continues, "the ranges in these graphs does not accurately represent the full dynamic range of the data."

So where's the off switch for the aesthetic improvement filter? Apparently there isn't one. This app instantly looses credibility for me. It's pretty to look at but doesn't offer real tangible data analysis. There's no way for me to just show one brainwave frequency range and experiment with trying to increase or decrease that range. Nothing to let me see or save real numbers.

But wait, there's a Game mode to the app. So, I pop over to that part and I'm presented with a burning barrel and an Attention bar. As I am more "Attentive", the barrel burns faster. Once you make the barrel explode, it loads another barrel and it records your best burn time. I quickly find that if I scream inside my head, the barrels pretty much explode one after another. Sadly, I have no idea why this is the case--since, again, I don't know what the attention meter is basing it's value on. As a side note though, while proof-reading this article, I was wearing the headset and the attention meter stayed at 100 for nearly the entire time I was reading, which I thought was pretty cool.

Now, I notice another set of small buttons that say, "Float" and "Burn". I switch to Float mode. The barrel goes away, replaced with a rainbow disco ball and the Attention meter is replaced with a Meditation meter.

I find the meditation game much more difficult, but I'm not sure if it's my brain being all screams inside or if it's due to the difference in how this game mode behaves. Instead of burning the object, you are supposed to make it float. But, like the annoying chime music that interrupts your meditation in the brainwave visualizer, knocking you off your meditative pedestal, when you finally get the ball in the air, it bounces up and down. So, I'm "Meditating" but each time the ball bounces back down it's like a giant middle finger to my zen state of mind.

After a bit of practice with being zen and attentive, I close the Brainwave Visualizer and move on to the other major application that shipped with the MindSet: The Adventures of Neuroboy. Quickly, you learn that this "Game" is merely a demonstration tool. There's no plot or story challenge. It's just a tutorial and a playground for doing the same two actions that we found in the visualizer: Meditation and Attention (now called Concentrate). I really wish I knew how those things were calculated. Though one difference here is that they show how a game can map these two measurements to different types of game actions: meditate to make something float, concentrate to push, pull or burn an object.

Even though it doesn't present game challenges to help you learn anything new, it's kind of fun to walk around a little field and make cars float by closing your mind's eye or make barrels explode by screaming at them with your inner voice.

The game insures that you will never explode an object unintentionally by making you first choose an action and select the object you want to act on--only then does it pay attention to the brainwave readings. At that point, you can just let your brain go and you'll get variable success from just being there--but if you try, you get more success and that's a little rewarding. But I'm left with the sad fact that even if you don't try, you will burn barrels and levitate objects just because your brain is doing lots of crazy ups and downs within the desired frequency whether you like it or not.

Over the next several days, I pull out the other free apps and I find that none of them do anything more impressive than the main demo apps—and some are downright confusing. Admittedly, I haven't gotten around to purchasing any of the paid apps because I've been so disappointed with the free set--but I'm going to explore that area and maybe follow up if I find a game changer.

I didn't expect to start using this thing to drive my car or write emails--but I firmly believe that we are heading in that direction. It's only a matter of time before our ebook readers start turning pages automatically based on our thoughts. How much longer then before we are navigating through Gmail with winks and snarls, or how long before your phone automatically calls a friend when you are feeling down?

Unfortunately, as with most things like this, I got busy and haven't spent any time looking at the development kit. Alas, I will probably be yet another developer failing to enrich the brainwave app community. But I will always hold it in the back of my mind, telling myself that someday, someone is going to write a killer app for this thing and it's going to blow my mind--and maybe that person will be me.