It can feel like a crippling full body cramp.
One that causes your shoulder and neck muscles to tighten, your fists to clench and your mind to focus on everything that could go wrong regardless of probability.
The physical signs of stress are often easier to spot than the internal effects; when the stress hormone cortisol races through your body it can impact your heart rate, breathing cadence, and over lengthy periods of time could potentially lead to mental illness, increase your risk for heart disease, and negatively impact your immune system.
But what if you could stop stress before it manifests itself inwardly and outwardly?
What if you could teach yourself to become more self-aware, to recognize stress in its infancy, and mute it long before it can harm you?
Well, now there’s an app for that.
It also comes with a headband that measures your brain activity, interprets your level of focus and helps you learn to calm yourself. The headband can also provide real-time feedback you can use to track progress over time, better recognize when you’re mind is wandering , and reward you for calming yourself and achieving a healthier state of mind.
It’s a headband with endless possible applications.
But it all started as nothing more than a promotional stunt as part of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics where spectators could control the lights of Niagara Falls, CN Tower and Parliament buildings with their minds, fun ways to turn beer taps off and on, and levitating chairs.
Really Cool but is it Practical?
InteraXon, the Canadian tech startup behind the brain sensing headband Muse, charged onto the wearable tech scene five years ago with a bang. Long before Muse was touted as something that could reduce stress and calm the mind, it was dropping jaws by proving that the mind can actually make things move.
That’s right, no hands.
Just brainwaves harnessed by a headband that could do the seemingly impossible. The technology was on display for the world to see at the Winter Olympic games in Vancouver, British Columbia. That’s where visitors were invited to try on the headband and use their brains to control the lighting at three locations without ever touching a switch.
An estimated 2,000 people used the headband to:
- Make the lights spin faster at Toronto’s CN Tower
- Change the brightness of the lights at Niagara Falls
- Adjust the lights at Ottawa’s Parliament buildings
Image via: CNN
Two years later, the mind-reading headband that focuses thoughts and can connect with smartphones and other devices was also shown off as something you could use to turn a beer tap on or off.
Just focus your attention on the tap to start pouring beer. To turn off the tap, just stop thinking about it.
“But how do we make brain sensing technology more valuable than controlling a beer tap with your mind,” Martin Cieszewski, InteraXon’s marketing chief, explained while reflecting upon the company history.. “What else could it be used for?”
The Big Pivot
Muse has generated big headlines and has turned heads around the world. After developing hardware and software used as a brain training platform the company began talking to customers and learned how the headband might be used to make an even more significant difference in everyday life.
InteraXon was pivoting in real-time.
Between 2012 to 2015, the company repositioned the Muse several times:
- It began as a headband that was perceived as a wearable tech device used to control objects in the physical world with just your mind
- Afterward, it became a type of brain fitness product designed to improve focus
- Today, it’s a device that acts as a personal meditation assistant that helps people get the most out of their meditation practice by providing real time feedback and tracking. Meditation has been scientifically shown to alleviate symptoms related to stress, anxiety, depression and many other psychological conditions. This in turn can reduce stress and help people live happier lives
“Oh, I use it for sure,” Cieszewski says. “Meditation is ingrained in our company’s culture, we use it at meetings and quickly realized this was an application that could really help people live better lives and improve productivity in the workplace.”
Here’s how it works:
- The headband fits across your forehead and tucks behind your ears
- It connects via Bluetooth to a smartphone app,that converts the signals picked up by the headband into meaningful data
- The headband uses EEG sensors, the same technology doctors use to check for epilepsy or Alzheimer’s, to measure and interpret your brainwaves
- Once you begin meditating, the app provides real-time brain feedback by providing audio that indicates whether your brain is “active” or “calm”
- If you’re calm, you’ll hear pleasant sounds like birds chirping
- If your mind is active, you’ll hear harsher weather-related sounds like strong wind and waves
- The weather cues help train the meditator to stay in a deeper meditation by following the guiding sounds
“It helps people recognize when their mind is active or focused and provides reinforcement that helps them calm their minds,” Cieszewski says. “The idea is to motivate people to start meditating, help them understand whether they are doing it correctly, and provide data that shows they’re getting the most out of their session and reaping all its wonderful benefits.”
Fitbit for the Brain
“The Muse does so much more than just track your steps,” Cieszewski says using Fitbit as a metaphor for Muse. “This is totally different because we’re actually measuring brain activity, tracking progress, and improving the quality of meditation which all in turns really helps improve quality of life.”
Specifically, the application illustrates the percentage of time a user is “active” versus “calm” in a particular meditation session. Based on the soundscapes, or audio weather cues, users can train themselves to recognize exactly when their mind begins to wander and take steps to refocus on being calm.
“It’s just like lifting weights only you’re strengthening your brain,” Cieszewski says. “It’s strength conditioning for your mind so you become more aware and don’t let your mind wander and focus on negative things.”
The app monitors a user’s progress over time and can help users pinpoint specific situations or environments in which the user might be more prone to experience stress or anxiety. The idea is to use the Muse to train yourself to become more self-aware and quickly recognize in the real world when your mind wanders or you become stressed. If you can do this, the company suggests, you can, with practice, quickly begin to calm your brain.
“Your brain is similar to a muscle,” Cieszewski says. “When you train your biceps you see results, the same is possible with your mind.”
Besides identifying exercises one can do to improve meditation and achieve a healthier mind, the Muse also mixes gamification into the experience. For instance, you may be rewarded or offered opportunities to unlock additional features by meeting a challenge or personal milestone.
“Initially, you have to become aware your mind is wandering or that you’re losing control of your mind,” Cieszewski says. “Muse helps you recover and gives you the strength necessary to regain control of your mind.”
New Category Woes
InteraXon has a problem that often afflicts the bold and courageous; aside from early adopters, it’s difficult for the masses to understand what a category creator can do for them.
“We’re a brand new category,” Cieszewski says. “People have no concept so we’re really having to get out there and educate the public about what Muse has to offer.”
Fortunately, the team at InteraXon can focus on what’s important rather than worrying about the technology necessary to run a successful ecommerce business.
“We’ve been with Shopify Plus from the very beginning,” Cieszewski says. “Shopify is a tool that has allowed us to quickly get off the ground and reach customers wherever they are.”
While InteraXon is not releasing sales figures, the company suggests it is “growing fast” and that ecommerce is a significant percentage of overall sales. The company adds that:
- Sales have increased month over month since mid-year 2015
- The company continues to be impressed by increases in site traffic
- Publicity from major media is increasing awareness and helping to educate the public
To better monetize the growing interest in Muse, the company says it’s leveraging two easy-to-use Shopify Plus applications designed to boost sales:
- The Ambassador application which helps companies turbo-charge their referral programs and turn customers into brand ambassadors
- The embeddable Buy Button which allows companies to instantly create commerce nearly anywhere by embedding buy buttons on other websites or blogs frequented by their target market, inside mobile applications, or on screens at special events or conferences
“We had to make money right out of the gate so we could continue to invest in the business,” Cieszewski says. “Shopify helped us quickly scale in different parts of the world, provides the reporting we need to make data-driven decisions, and has been a great solution for us.”
Shopify Plus’ easy to use out-of-the-box solution is also freeing InteraXon to focus on the future and new applications for Muse.
Healing Wounds Seen and Unseen
In addition to consumers who want to reduce stress, InteraXon is also marketing Muse as a B2B product with its sights set on the medical community. “Our priority is mental health and we think there’s a lot of promise there,” Cieszewski says.
The strategy, in part, is to show psychologists, therapists, and clinicians the benefits of prescribing Muse as a supplement or alternative to traditional prescription medications. “We’re already seeing doctors prescribe Muse for a variety of conditions,” Cieszewski says. “Mental health professionals are using it to help patients with drug and alcohol dependencies for example.”
Meditation, which Muse improves, according to the company, is also being used to help with:
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
- High Blood Pressure
- Chronic Pain
- Social and Behavioural Needs in Learning
- Sleeping Conditions
InteraXon is working with over 100 research hospitals, universities, and research institutes to clinically test Muse and its potential impact on medical conditions and whether it might be used to amplify the positive effects of traditional treatments.
“The benefit to doctors and clinicians is that Muse motivates patients to continue their meditation practice and feeds this data back in order to measure progress,” Cieszewski says. “We’re just scratching the surface right now, it’s all hands on deck when it comes to reaching medical professionals.”
An Athlete’s Best Friend?
It may only be a glint in InteraXon’s eye today, but athletics are certainly in the company’s crosshairs as another potential application for Muse. “It’s super early,” Cieszewski says. “We haven’t even done any marketing but professional athletes are already seeking us out.”
It doesn’t hurt that tennis superstar Novak Djokovic navigates high-pressure tournaments with the help of meditation. In fact, Djokovic credits peaceful sounds, similar to those Muse offers users, with helping him clear his mind and recharge between matches.
InteraXon says Olympic professional athletes, specifically figure skating, cycling and women’s soccer teams, are now using Muse to help them perform better. “Anyone trying to be a top tier athlete needs a mental advantage,” Cieszewski says.
However, it’s golfers who seem to be most interested in Muse as a way to enhance performance. InteraXon says professional golfers and performance coaches have begun using Muse to try and gain a competitive advantage. “We’re just beginning to talk about the benefits for golfers,” Cieszewski says.
“I can’t tell you exactly who at this point in time,” Cieszewski teases, “but we are talking to performance coaches in other professional sports who are interested in using Muse to their advantage.”
Day Zero for What’s Possible
If you buy a Muse for $299 you can expect it to continue giving long after the initial purchase. For instance, InteraXon routinely updates, upgrades, or adds to Muse in a variety of ways:
- New soundscapes, like a rain forest that sounds as if it’s raining harder when you’re stressed, are regularly being released
- Interactive features are being introduced that allow users to share their progress with others
- Courses designed to improve your meditation are being created
For Medical Professionals
- Efforts are being made to continuously improve the brain activity data InteraXon is collecting
- Partnerships are being sought so the data may be shared with medical professionals with specific expertise to develop more advanced insight
- Deeper connections in the medical and academic communities are being forged
The biggest challenge ahead is intimately understanding the brain activity data Muse collects. It’s why the company is rapidly building algorithms to make sense of the data.
“The real value of our business is interpreting brain signals and our algorithms are constantly getting better,” Cieszewski says. “The more data we analyze and the better we understand how the brain works the better our machine learning and ultimately the benefits and experiences we provide to customers become.”
“The future possibilities are just massive,” Cieszewski says. “Really, this is day zero of what’s possible in the future for this space.”
About The Author
Nick Winkler is a contributor to the Shopify Plus blog. He helps individuals & organizations generate new leads, make more money, and ignite growth with story. Get more from Nick here.