Mind Control for Athletes- My First Impressions of the Versus EEG Headset

Two weeks ago, I received something really exciting in the mail.  No, not a sex toy or a tax rebate- a brand new Versus brain training headset (the kind of thing I find exciting).  Versus, the brainchild (see what I did there?) of San Francisco-based SenseLabs, is still in pre-production, yet it has already attracted a following among high-level athletes, including X-games athletes such as Elliot Sloan, the Seattle Seahawks, UCLA women’s golf team, NBA leading 3-point scorer Kyle Korver, and members of the US Olympic team.  

I’m excited because Versus promises to improve my focus and stress management (both of which suck), and even help me get into a highly productive and rewarding “flow” state.  I’m excited because it might help me get over the heartbreak I suffered when Zeo went out of business.  And I’m excited because it makes me look and feel like the Six Million Dollar Man.  

So how is it going so far?  Well, the first week saw a few issues, which turned out to be (mostly) user error. However, for the past few days I’ve been having some great sessions with my Versus, and that leaves me with very high hopes for the next few months.  Read on for details…

The headset is cool- just make sure you get the fit right

Unlike other brain-reading devices which are arranged in a horizontal band, Versus has 5 sensors englobing the head- front, back, left, right, and on top of your head.  This arrangement offers a three-dimensional view of the brain that’s closer to what a medical EEG would provide, and more accurate than other EEG-based headset devices.  The sensor pads are each covered with flexible pins made of what seems to be some kind of plastic, and the headset also includes headphones for playing audio from the companion iPad apps, and a clip that attaches to your left ear to run a tiny electric current through your head.  Two problems I encountered- 

First off, my headset initially didn’t fit well.  Not that I couldn’t put it on- it’s flexible enough that anyone can wear it.  But the side sensors were a little tight, while the one on top was barely in contact with my head, leading to frequent disconnects (more on how I fixed that later) as well as insecurity about how flat the top of my head is.  It was only after video chatting with SenseLabs’ quality assurance manager that I learned how to adjust the headset to the point where it fits my head and disconnects almost never happen.  

Second, the pin pads make the headset a bit uncomfortable- they’re rounded rather than sharp, but it’s still a few pounds of force being applied to my head across a few dozen small points.  Apparently the first model had graphite pins that felt like mechanical pencils (just…ouch) while the next pre-production model coming out this year will have larger pin pads, to spread the same force out over a larger area.  I’ve found that the headset is usually a bit painful to put on at first, but you stop feeling it after a few minutes, and I’m also slowly getting used to it.  The QA manager told me that, in addition to getting used to the feeling, the pins also soften over the course of a few weeks of use.  I did try out a Versus once at a company event, and it was a lot more comfortable, so this seems to be true- I’ll just have to see how long it takes.  

The documentation needs to be expanded on

Like I said, most of my initial problems were due to user error- but that was largely because for the moment, the instructions are split between a paper manual, online videos, and instructions provided within the companion iPad app, and none of them are quite thorough enough, which is why I ended up having to video chat with someone  

I knew you could bend the headset somewhat to get a better fit, but without a video showing me how to do it, I was afraid of breaking my headset and didn’t bend it hard enough.  Turns out the headset has a steel frame that’s a lot more durable than it looks.    

There’s a bottle of pin pad conditioner (some kind of vaseline-like substance) that you’re supposed to apply to the sensor pins every week or so.  I totally overlooked this, and it gets only the briefest mention in the instructions.  It turns out that this, even more than the fit of the headset, was the reason my headset initially had so much trouble reading my brain waves.

SenseLabs knows the instructions are an issue, and is totally re-doing them,, so I expect this to be a non-issue within a few months.  As it stands now, there was an initial learning curve that took me a week or two to get over between figuring out how to adjust my headset and apply the conditioner.  

I’m a fucking idiot

Upon receiving my Versus, I tore into the package like a kid on Christmas morning.  Got the headset out, admired it for a few minutes, took a selfie with it, and then got down to business.  I signed up for the Versus Genesis program and set up my account, which was easy and kind of exciting.  Then I started downloading the apps and…nothing.  The downloads wouldn’t complete.  

At first I thought it was just my internet connection, but then I realized the horrible truth- Versus is only compatible with late-model iPads, and mine was too old.  I had a second-generation iPad, and I needed an iPad 3.  I couldn’t let my amazing new headset go to waste, so I settled on a solution: I would buy a refurbished iPad 3 from Best buy.  I was all set to do that last Thursday when, as luck would have it, on Wednesday night a guy in my kung-fu class asked if anyone had an iPad for sale.  

Back home that night, I’m looking up my iPad’s specs for the guy- turns out this is harder than it sounds, because it doesn’t just say “iPad 2, 8 GB” anywhere in your settings.  You have to look up a model number that’s written in tiny print on the back of your iPad, and according to that model number…mine is an iPad 3.  Which doesn’t make sense, right?  Except it turns out that my OS is out of date.  So after updating the OS, the Versus apps worked just fine.

You guys…if I hadn’t had someone inquire about buying my iPad, and if I hadn’t thought to take it to Best Buy to trade in the next day, I would have spend about $230 on a new (well, used) iPad 3…the exact same model I already had.  

Side note: Versus isn’t cheap.  Meditation is free though- click here to learn how to meditate.

The EEG headset is really fun, and I seem to be making progress

Okay, so there were a lot of hassles…but now that I’m past them, this thing totally rocks.  At the moment it comes with five games, each of which has you staring at the screen trying to remain focused while also staying completely calm and stress-free, and one of which also has you using the iPad’s accelerometer to steer a glider.  It’s fun, it’s relaxing, and I look forward to my sessions with Versus.  Much like going to the gym, it’s something that I actually wish I could do more often (they suggest three 20-minute sessions a week).  

The games also have leaderboards, which provide a sense of competition to motivate people to keep playing.  You can see how your overall breakdown (it scores you on six attributes related to stress and focus, which I’ll break down in my next article) compares to athletes in different sports- hockey players have the best overall mental performance, though that’s admittedly based on a small sample size.  And finally, you can see some basic profiles of other Versus users, showing their training program, favorite game, sport, and overall score.  This feature is clearly a work in progress, and most of the pro athletes don’t use it, while most of the SenLabs employees I can see are on a stress reduction program (as am I for that matter), which tells you something about Bay Area startup culture.  

Versus has a ton of potential

What really excited me is the potential for Versus to expand on it’s current capabilities with analytics that correlate your mental performance with what you’ve been doing in life.  Want to learn what the perfect pre-game nutrition is for you?  The ideal times at which you should go to sleep and wake up for optimum mental performance?  The perfect amount of caffeine- or any other performance-enhancing supplement?  Versus could easily answer this questions using the hardware is it exists now- only the iPad apps would need to be improved on to make it happen.

As I write this, SenseLabs has just released updated versions of all the apps, which give you more detailed session data after each time you play a game.  I’ve done about six sessions with Versus, but only two since I finally started using it correctly.  I’m already seeing clear progress in my scores with the brain-training apps, but it’s still too early to feel any improvement in real life, outside of the Versus apps.

I’ve been told that I should feel improvement in my real-life mental performance within a couple weeks- not to mention a softening of the sensor pins, which would make the headset a lot more comfortable.  I’m also still evaluating the Versus software, which itself is under continual development.  So here’s what’s next: I’m going to keep using Versus 3-4 times a week.  In two or three weeks I’ll write a follow-up post explaining the progress I’ve made, giving more detail on what Versus measures (Focus and Stress are each broken down into three sub-attributes that bear some explaining), and offering up whatever I can learn about what’s coming up in Versus’ development.  After that, I’ll start  experimenting wit nootropics (brain drugs) and using Versus to measure their effects.  

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