A few weeks ago, something remarkable happened to me. I had just finished an hour and a half of kung-fu class, and was grabbing my bag and getting ready to head home, when I started to think about some Google ad campaigns I was running for my clients. Then, it occurred to me that I hadn’t thought about work for the entire class.
This may not sound like much, but I’ve been studying kung-fu for about six years, and this is the first time I’ve ever gone through a whole class without ever thinking about anything else. And I think I know why it happened: for the past 2 weeks, I had been meditating with the help of Versus, a headset that reads my brainwaves and provides feedback on my mental state.
I’ve now been using Versus for six weeks- twenty minute sessions, three times a week. By far the most noticeable effect has been an increased ability to stay present in whatever I’m doing, whether it’s kung-fu, dodgeball, work, the gym, or socializing. I’ve become a little bit calmer, a little bit more focused, and a little bit more productive, and it’s making me better at almost everything I do.
Versus, made by San Francisco-based startup SenseLabs, is one of a growing number of EEG (electroencephalograph) headsets that aim to improve brain function through the use of neurofeedback- the use of electronic devices and applications that give people clear and immediate feedback on their mental state to produce sizable, permanent improvements in mental performance. The headset has already garnered high praise from a variety of college professional athletes, including Carlos Quentin, the UCLA women’s golf team, and keri Walsh Jennings (if you don’t know who that is, you hate America). Now, however, most customers are using it for productivity and mental health (particularly ADHD treatment), rather than athletic benefits.
Disclaimer: My father is an advisor to SenseLabs. I received a free Versus, but no other compensation for writing this.
My interest in consumer EEG devices began years ago with the (now defunct) Zeo sleep monitor. I was excited to be offered the chance to use Versus, and the results I’ve gotten so far are very promising for the short time frame in which they were produced. So for the curious, here’s how a weird-looking Six Million Dollar Man helmet manages to help people upgrade their brains.
How Versus Works
The Versus system consists of two components- an EEG headset, and a suite of iPad apps that you use while wearing the headset. The headset looks sort of like the skeleton of a bicycle helmet, with five sensors englobing your head. The apps include five games which incorporate feedback from the headset, causing you to score points when your brain waves are in the desired mental state. There’s also a master Versus app which tracks your performance data, gives you an assessment every two months or so, and allows you to monitor your brain waves in real time.
When you first start using Versus, you take an assessment which puts you in either a stress or focus training program. The games work the same way, you’re scored the same way, regardless of which group you’re in, and everyone has the same ultimate goal, so the main difference between the different training programs is the instructions you’re given.
Over time, using the apps train your brain to be able to enter a state of relaxed focus, at will. Versus trains your brain for focus and stress management, but those are further broken down into six specific capacities-
Focus capacity- How strongly stay engaged and focused on one task.
Focus endurance- How long you can maintain that focus.
Impulse control- Your ability to avoid having your focus disrupted by distractions, and to refrain from making bad snap decisions.
Activation baseline- How active your mind is when at rest. Ideally fairly low, but not so low you have trouble rousing yourself into activity.
Stress regulation- Your ability to stay relaxed and maintain a consistent mental state when facing stressful stimuli.
Max activation- The difference between your most active and least active mental states. Ideally, your brain is very inactive when at rest and very active when engaged in a demanding task- a low difference indicates that you lack surplus mental resources because stress is consuming your brainpower.
The mental state you’re training for is one where you’re focused but not straining, and relaxed but not disengaged. To train yourself to enter this state of relaxed focus, you play the companion iPad games for 20 minutes, three times a week. Versus currently comes with five games, each of which helps you to develop all six of those capacities.
NeuroShapes- The screen displays three circles representing alpha, beta and theta brain waves. When you enter the correct mental state, the circles converge, and you score points. This gives you more specific feedback than the other games, and is the only game that breaks your performance down by the three different brain waves.
NeuroGlider- You steer a glider through floating rings by tilting the iPad. When in the correct mental state, the glider gains altitude and you score points. This is the only game to use any kind of physical controls; with the others you only have to stare at the screen. However, your score is still based solely on mental state and not how well you steer the glider.
NeuroRacer- A car drives around a race track on a pre-set course. The better your mental state, the faster it drives.
NeuroBalloon- There’s a hot air balloon. When in the correct mental state, it rises and you score points. Otherwise it drops, though you don’t actually lose points.
NeuroJumper- My personal favorite, you play a person in a wingsuit jumping off a cliff into a canyon. The better you focus while staying relaxed, the farther he glides before opening his parachute. Unfortunately, bad performance doesn’t cause him to plummet to his death. Unlike the other games, which have multi-minute time limits that you set beforehand, Jumper is played in short runs of about 20-30 seconds, which last longer the better you do.
How powerful and accurate are the sensors?
To answer this question, I need to give you some background on how Versus works and the science behind it. Every other EEG headset device on the market either has only a single sensor, or arrays the sensors in a horizontal band across the forehead (or in one case, the back of the head). Versus is unique in that it has the five sensors englobing the head- front, back, left, right and top. This makes Versus the only consumer EEG product that can get a fully three-dimensional picture of your brain activity (medical EEGs also get 3-D pictures, of course). Another difference between Versus and every other EEG headset is that Versus extends its sensors with “pins” made of a carbon/plastic material, which helps it to get a more accurate reading, particularly through thick hair.
SenseLabs claims that this arrangement makes Versus more accurate than competing headsets- I haven’t tested other headsets, and even if I had I don’t know that I could evaluate that claim since what you see isn’t raw data. So I’ve tested out the headset’s accuracy to the best of my abilities, by deliberately losing focus or thinking stressful thoughts while using it. What I see is that Versus does seem to notice when I do this, and my score is consistently lower whenever I don’t try.
Now, for those of you who are wondering what Versus is actually reading: there are five types of brain waves- from lowest to highest frequency they are: delta waves, associated with deep sleep, theta waves, associated with light sleep and deep relaxation/meditation, alpha waves, generally found in our default resting state and relaxed concentration, beta waves, which dominate our thoughts when we’re alert and concentrating hard, and gamma waves, which occur mainly in short bursts and are believed to combine disparate thoughts into a single idea.
Versus is capable of reading all five of these brain waves, but it primarily looks at alpha, beta and theta waves, the main brain waves involved in waking thought. One feature of the main Versus application allows you to view your alpha, beta and theta brain wave activity, and the NeruoShapes game actually provides feedback that separates your performance into these three brain waves- you can see, for instance, if you have the right amount of beta and theta but aren’t generating enough alpha waves. Delta waves are taken into account when assigning you to a training protocol, but otherwise aren’t trained for in any of the games. Gamma waves are incorporated into only some of the training, and aren’t actually shown to you the way theta, alpha and beta waves are.
So how accurate does this ultimately make Versus? Well, it definitely noticed when I lose focus, or think stressful thoughts. It clearly gives me a lower score when I don’t try. Overall it seems very accurate, but there are a few things that can throw off its accuracy. First off, the headset needs to be fitted correctly. Second, you need to apply a vaseline-like conditioner to the sensor pins. I got both of these wrong for the first week I was using Versus- after that, it worked great for me.
The other big thing that can impact accuracy is movement. The neural impulses of muscle movement can be hard for the sensors to distinguish from brain activity. The faster the movement or the closer it is to the headset, the more of a problem it is, with excessive movement disrupting sensor accuracy for several seconds. I find that moving my arms and legs isn’t a problem unless I do something like punch the air, but neck and head movement needs to be done slowly. Jaw movement is an issue for me because I have a clicking jaw; otherwise it’s not hard to avoid moving enough to impair sensor accuracy.
The headset lets you know if any of the sensors lose their connection to your head, and will pause the apps and prompt you to adjust the headset. There also seems to be significant potential to improve accuracy through software improvements, as a recently released update to the iPad apps has dramatically cut down on
Ultimately, Versus isn’t perfect and is definitely not on par with medical EEGs, which use about two dozen sensors glued to a person’s head. However, it’s more than accurate enough to provide useful feedback on your mental activity and help you fight stress and improve your focus- at least once you get past the initial learning curve.
Comfort, portability and battery life
With every brain-reading device, there’s a tradeoff between accuracy and comfort. Other headsets err on the side of comfort in order to remain user friendly. Versus is, as far as I know, the most accurate consumer EEG device on the market, but there is a price for that. While using Versus isn’t torture by any means, comfort is definitely its Achilles heel.
Instead of flat sensor pads like other headsets, Versus uses sensor pads with little conical extensions sticking out of them that jab into your head. It doesn’t help that these extensions are referred to as pins. The sensor pins enhance the accuracy of the sensors, and are crucial for allowing Versus to scan your brain through your hair. They also jab into your scalp, which doesn’t feel good, particularly if you’re bald and you have a brand new headset.
My experience has been that it hurts just a little when I first put the headset on, then the ache quickly subsides, but it comes back after about 15 minutes- shortly before the session ends. It’s probably less of an issue for people with hair, but the front sensor, at the very least is always going to rest on bare skin. The good news is that the headset does get more comfortable as time goes on- not only do you get used to it, but the sensor pins soften over the course of the first three months or so (if you have one to yourself; a shared headset would soften a lot faster). It’s been six weeks for me, and I now find that I rarely feel discomfort except towards the very end of my sessions.
Versus also isn’t very portable. It only weights about a pound, but it doesn’t fold up, and since it englobes the head, it takes up almost as much space as a volleyball. You won’t be carrying it around with you and using it on the bus. SenseLabs has floated the idea of providing a carrying case, but the box it comes in is ten inches to a side, and a carrying case would have to be a nine-inch cube at the smallest. Now, I personally don’t care and wouldn’t travel with it anyway, and most users won’t either. But if you’re a frequent traveller, be warned that traveling with it would be tough.
Battery life has been a total non-issue for me, and has never run out while I’m using Versus. The battery lasts several hours, which equates to at least six sessions- that’s two weeks or more of use for a single user, probably more. I’m not sure exactly how fast the headset charges; there’s no battery display on the headset itself so all I can say is a few hours every two weeks has done the trick just fine. If you’re buying a headset to be shared among a very large number of people, you’ll need to be sure to charge it when it’s not in use, as you can’t charge the headset (or your iPad) while using it because being connected to a grounded power source would interfere with the sensors. But if there are less than 20 regular users sharing one headset, I wouldn’t expect battery life to be an issue.
Right now, SenseLabs is charging $399 for the headset itself, plus a subscription fee per user account. At the moment, the subscription fee is $20 a month or $200 a year, or for $750 you can get the headset plus a lifetime subscription. There are also discounted subscription rates for groups that want to buy a shared headset- those are still being finalized but should be visible on the website soon.
This subscription-based pricing model is, as far as I know, unique among consumer EEG devices. The reason for this model is that many Versus headsets are actually being shared by groups of users, such as sports teams, companies and schools. Ultimately what this means is that Versus is a bit pricey if you buy one just for yourself, but is very affordable if you share it among even a small group of people. I think you could realistically share one headset between 10-20 people before availability becomes an issue- remember, it can’t charge while in use.
For those of you wondering if you could just get one account and share it among multiple people- sure you could, but mixing all of your data together would make your progress difficult to judge, and prevent Versus from tailoring your training program specifically to you.
Again, this is still in pre-production, so the cost will probably go down a bit once it enters full production. The use of a subscription-based pricing model is almost certain not to change.
The future of Versus
SenseLabs has a lot of improvements planned for Versus. For starters, the current apps are iPad only, and iPhone versions are on track for release this summer.
Right now, the way the apps automatically adjust the difficulty level and present your score to you makes it difficult to judge your progress on a session by session basis. You also can’t see historical performance data, other than your all-time top score for each game. That obviously needs to change.
There are plans to improve the stat tracking and presentation on the apps, so that users can get a detailed look at their historical progress, and also see a more detailed and informative breakdown of their performance on a per-session basis. One VP also told me they intend to offer optional features for plotting your performance with Versus against real-life and lifestyle factors- such as how you feel today, or how much you slept the previous night.
It’s not clear at this time how that will ultimately look; I’m hoping for a truly robust analytics package so I can incorporate Versus into a bunch of self-experiments, involving things like diet and sleep hacking. In fact, I’ve recently been using it to evaluate how caffeine affects my mental performance, and what the ideal dosage of caffeine is for me- watch for an article about that later this month.
SenseLabs has created a Versus API, which allows third-party developers to create more apps for use with the headset. I’m really excited about the potential for third-party apps to enable a whole new wave of quantified self experiments, but right now it’s not clear how many are in development or when they might come out. Ultimately, both the number of apps and the effort that goes into them will be proportional to how popular Versus becomes, so I’m filing this under “wait and see.”
The last thing that’s on the horizon is a couple of minor improvements to the headset itself. First off, SenseLabs is working with its manufacturer to slightly increase the amount of carbon in the sensor pins, which will produce a modest increase in sensor accuracy. Second, they’re going to make the frame of the headset a little bit more flexible, which will improve comfort and help it fit people’s heads better.
So should you buy Versus or not?
At this point, I’m confident in recommending Versus as a tool for fighting stress, and improving productivity and mental performance. Versus has made a clear difference in my life, and from what I can see it seems my results are typical.
That said, the app needs some work, the whole system is still in pre-production, and I know most people don’t like to adopt new and unfamiliar technology quite that early. So if you’re interested, there are three ways to go- first off, you could buy it right now. Second, you could wait a few months since there are a few small improvements planned to the hardware- I’ll update this article when that happens, but I expect it to be late summer. Third, you could wait for Versus to enter full production, at which point it will have more testimonials from people using it for non-athletic purposes, and will probably be less expensive. That will be a long wait though- could be towards the end of this year, or it could even be next year.
There are several types of people who could benefit from Versus:
Athletes- This is Versus’ original target market, and the one that’s had the most proven results so far. I’m particularly impressed by the UCLA women’s golf team case study. If you’re an athlete, I can’t recommend Versus highly enough.
Office workers and college students looking for productivity benefits- This is the main reason I’m using Versus, and again I’ve been very impressed by my results, as well as some of the testimonials they’ve started posting. Right now the price is definitely a barrier to your average middle-class employee, but if you’re interested in getting one for your office to share, I’d contact the company about group rates.
Grade schools- This is similar to use by office workers, just with kids instead of adults. A lot of schools have begun trying Versus as a way to help children manage their energy levels and focus on their work. It sounds like they’ve gotten promising results so far, and case studies are forthcoming.
People with anxiety or ADHD- Again, promising results, but case studies for this are likely a ways off. Neurofeedback devices like Versus have the potential to offer a long-term alternative to drug treatments for conditions like ADHD and anxiety, and Versus may be worth trying if you have either condition. Even in a best-case scenario though, it won’t produce results as quickly as drugs would.
So what’s my recommendation for anyone interested in trying out neurofeedback? It depends on who you are. If you’re an early adopter and you have the money, I say go ahead and buy one- however, if I was buying one for myself at this point, I’d probably wait just a few months, knowing they’re going to up the carbon content of the sensors to make it a little more accurate. Just my preference though.
If you’re really interested but don’t have $750 to burn, keep following Versus, but wait for it to enter full production. I’m sure the price will go down, though the wait, again, will be pretty long.
If you want to buy one to share with a group, I’d just go ahead and get one now. When you’re sharing a headset, the cost of the headset itself becomes very small, plus you get a group rate on the subscriptions. You could always get another headset for the group in 6-12 months, so I see no need to wait.
So that’s my take on Versus- it’s an impressive step forward for the science of human performance, it’s helped me calm down and focus on my work/sports/social interactions, and it’ll probably help you if you’re willing to try it. I’ll be mentioning it in a few future articles about smart drugs/mental performance, and will plan on writing an update about my long-term results toward the end of this year.
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