SAN FRANCISCO, CA—Earlier this week,We 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, 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 e-mail, 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 behavior."
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 e-mail 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.)