Last March I wrote about a new wearable called Thync, which can adjust user moods to provide sensations of calm or energy boosts (via a specific "Vibe," depending on which option you choose via the associated app). In my article I discussed my visit to Thync headquarters in Boston, Mass., how the company was formed with the goal of impacting brain activity in a safe and beneficial manner, and my experiences with the product and the personnel.
I tested the calm Vibe last March with quite positive results, so I was happy to be invited back for a second meeting with the company to try the energy Vibe, see what's new and chat about Thync's upcoming product release as they make their wearable available for public sale.
I wanted to ensure I was prepared to test the energy Vibe, so the night before my visit I quaffed a few vodka tonics - purely in the interest of science, you understand. Then I stayed up late reading a sufficiently bad-dream-provoking novel (Stephen King's "It") and skipped my customary three cups of caffeine the next morning. I took the MBTA (Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority) commuter train into Boston's North Station and passed a Dunkin' Donuts on the way out with a longing look (if you've never been to Boston, they're almost literally on every street corner. What is this Starbucks thing my sister in Maryland is obsessed with?). However, as I said, science came first.
Boston is a very walkable city, so to ensure that I would be in need of a significant pick-me-up I walked the two miles to Thync HQ in the Prudential Building at Copley Square. As you can imagine, I was sufficiently groggy and sluggish when I arrived at Thync headquarters near Copley Square.
It was good to be back. I met again with William Tyler, chief science officer and Sumon Pal, chief of vibes, who unveiled the new Thync packaging for me to view.
The wearable itself is the white plastic object on the left (known as the Thync module, or a neuromodulation device), and it attaches to the user's forehead along with special strips for calm or energy Vibes. The package, which costs $299, includes 10 calm and 10 energy strips, which are recommended as single-use only (but depending on the wearer could support 3 or 4 uses before the effectiveness of the strip deterioriates). The strips are meant for 5-20 minutes of us (it does not require the user to wear them on a constant basis to receive the effects).
The strips themselves appear as follows:
I had a chat with Tyler and Pal about the release of the Thync module.
"Right now we're releasing a couple of thousand modules via a limited edition," Tyler said. "The overall release opens in the fall. We'll be shipping the first batch in 2 weeks. When users receive the product they can download the app from Thync web site. The first time you turn it on it runs a basic video to show you how it works. We want to make sure everyone learns to use out of the gate."
We talked about the consumable strips that go with the product.
"At present the strips are $20 per pack of five, but we're working to drive down the cost," Tyler said.
When I met with Tyler and Pal in March they had more basic versions of their calm and energy Vibes. The Vibes have advanced since then, with three specific categories and names for each (they tested hundreds of people to characterize their experiences, and this is how they developed the names).
Calm Vibe options
- Ease - A 5 minute Vibe to take the edge off stressful situations
- Unwind - A 10 minute program made for post work de-stress
- Rest - A 20 minute experience, which can also put you into a good state for sleep
The "Rest" Vibe has been found to aid with quality sleep and better rest; in fact, a study was conducted to analyze this concept (though it should be noted that the focus was on people with overactive minds and not genuine sleep disorders). As Tyler reported in a LinkedIn article, this Vibe produced the following benefits when used before bedtime:
- 31 out of 43 (72%) people reported feeling more rejuvenated;
- 33 out of 43 (77%) people reported feeling less drowsy;
- 19 out of 31 (61%) people reported having less anxiety;
- 21 out of 31 (68%) people reported feeling less stressed;
- 27 out of 41 (66%) people reported they had an easier time falling asleep;
- Two thirds (20 of 30) people reported getting more sleep;
Furthermore, "17 of 25 people felt that the calm Vibe prior to bed helped their sleep (i.e., reported sleep improvement or better quality sleep: felt more refreshed/alert the next day, felt that they slept deeper/more soundly, reported falling asleep more quickly, or reported waking up less."
Energy Vibe options
- Boost - A 5 minute Vibe more for advanced users who only need 5 minutes of energy
- Alert - A 10 minute program which provides mental energy to make the recipient more aware and more focused
- Go - A 10 minute Vibe which works well before engaging in physical activity
The Vibes are made via certain programming "blocks," and they've learned how to put the blocks together over time to create different effects. For instance, they can speed up the onset of the Vibe which gives them more freedom for how to dose it. These options can change down the road, and Thync will release more Vibes with more customizations. Eventually there will also be a software development kit (SDK) for people to customize their own Vibes via the same block design.
During the course of our discussion it was evident to me that Thync isn't trying to get people to replace emotion with artificial sensation nor to provide an "escape" from reality. Rather, "the fundamental principles here are based on how it (the module) will interact with your life. We're focused on helping people to understand how it can have a positive impact and how to regulate their mind on their own," Tyler said. "We spent 15 million developing this product and are developing the next round, the series C, in the summer."
There are some adjustments as new users get acclimated to the module.
"It takes 2-3 days for a user to get familiarized and comfortable with the device; it's like adjusting to a new car," Tyler said. "There is a sense of pressure/tingling when you use the module, but the sensation falls into the background."
At present Thync has offices in Boston and San Francisco. As for building additional Thync stores versus marketing online, Pal said, "We're selling online through our own e-commerce channel for the foreseeable future. I think that for something like this it does make sense for people to come in and try it out. We have an experiential marketing team that goes out to different cities and spreads the word so people can get their hands on the device and see what they think. It's like how Red Bull did it, for example, they spread the word through social interaction by going to places where people needed it." The company's head of marketing came from Red Bull, so it's not a coincidence that this will be their method of spreading the word.
Revisiting the calm Vibe
For my second demo, the guys at Thync recommended I try the calm Vibe followed by the energy Vibe as a way to clear my thoughts then reset my outlook. It reminded me of a wine tasting, in a way, whereby you cleanse your palate between sips of different flavors.
The module works via an app that runs off a smartphone or handheld device; in this case an iPod.
You attach the module to your forehead (there is a sticky strip which holds it in place) along with the strip for the type of Vibe you'd like. The cerebral cortex is the back-end system behind the Vibes and the app.
Pal (who has logged over 1000 hours of using the module) administered the Unwind calm Vibe for me, which is designed for 10 minutes of use. You can set the tuner (it is not just an intensity change) for the Vibe on a scale from 1-100. I started at 50. As the Vibe commenced I felt a slight pressure of the module against my forehead. As before, Pal recommended that I adjust the setting between 50 and 60 to see which felt most comfortable. Every time I increased the setting I felt another pulse at my temple as the module worked. Soon I found that 58% was just right. The calm sensations began trickling into my brain, like an outflow pipe dispensing warm water into a chilly swimming pool.
As with my first trial, I sought to consider a stressful scenario to see how the calm Vibe affected it. My mother-in-law was in town, but I didn't want to overwhelm (or short out) the Vibe so I found a different subject: I checked my email. I'm a system administrator by day, and I found that an emergency issue had arisen while I was out of the office (certificate problems). As I read the analysis of the problem and its lengthy error codes I felt no tension, nor any impediment upon my ability to troubleshoot the issue. I sent a quick email to a coworker with some recommendations. Then the 10 minute Vibe ended, and I could tell the flow of relaxation had stopped, though there was still a pleasant aftereffect.
"Our CEO calls that first euphoria from the calm Vibe 'a Thync moment'," Pal said. "We also use the slogan 'how good feels'. Our CEO usually tells people a Thync moment is worth a thousand Vibes since it took a thousand versions to end up with the final six."
"I know you guys aren't looking to replace traditional medicine, but it seems like it could be a preferable alternative to pharmaceutical meds," I said. "Some people feel there's a stigma associated with them, so maybe the calm Vibes could be used to replace that."
Pal agreed. "People who don't want prescriptions or dependency. Everyone feels different amounts of stress but in this case you have different options available. Tolerance, withdrawal and addiction don't apply here. Thync works using your own central nervous system within your natural range and set - it doesn't activate pathways for addiction or hangovers. There's no habituation, no need for increased doses, and no loss of inhibition."
Getting a zap of energy
Next it was time to try the energy Vibe. Another Thync staffer, Jonathan Charlesworth, worked with me to administer it.
"The energy Vibe uses a different strip since it affects different cranial nerves from the calm Vibe, so it relies on a different surface area," Charlesworth explained. "It produces different physical sensations compared to the calm Vibe. Calm and energy are provoked by different neural structures as part of the parasympathetic/sympathetic balance."
He said he would administer a couple of experimental Vibes called Buzz and Spice (these are not planned to go in the product just yet). In fact, I was pleased to find I would be the first outside (non-Thync) participant to test these.
"These are part of our preview programs which can predict which energy programs are preferable to users," Charlesworth said. He started the Buzz Vibe and I noticed a strong pulsing immediately commence; a sort of combination of vibration and tingling balanced between my forehead and ear.
"The physical sensations can be an adjustment but they give us clues about how we're activating different nerves," he said.
The effect was mild; I felt a greater sense of alertness than I had walked in with but it wasn't overpowering like Spice buzz. This produced a tingling in both my forehead and neck but with a clearer sense of focus. Whereas Buzz had offered a mental hit, Spice gave me both physical and mental energy. I could adjust the setting the same as with the calm Vibe, and settled on 48%.
As the Vibe ran I decided to find where the rubber meets the road. I've been reading up on a configuration management software package called Puppet and it is complex, to put it mildly. So I opened my Puppet documentation and perused it to see if the Vibe helped influence my understanding of the material. I also opened a copy of Thomas Pynchon's "V" which is a challenging work of fiction. In both cases I felt my reading comprehension operated on all circuits and my brain had no trouble internalizing the concepts I examined.
However, I want to stress that the energy Vibe didn't turn me into Sherlock Holmes or Iron Man, but rather it worked within my capabilities to reinforce what was there. It wasn't as if I was going to open a Latin book and start translating that language I last studied in 9th grade. In short, it gave me octane but didn't rewire my brain.
The Spice Vibe ended so I tried Go next.
"The Vibe transitions between different wave forms," Charlesworth said. "If you were doing work you might find them distracting. Transitions prevent your brain from habituating to the effects so they stay relevant. This means it won't entirely feel like the Spice Vibe."
The Vibe felt a bit different from Spice and Buzz; stronger but with a sort of background hum in my brain. It did indeed remind me of the time I drank a can of Red Bull (the only one I've had, actually) and wanted to visit the batting cages since I felt like I was aware of every molecule around me.
"How do you change the brain impact of the Vibes?" I asked.
"We alter the waveform, which changes how the brain is activated. Our goal is to find out what wave form creates the most efficient activation of nerves and the effect on best mental state. We're working with physiology and looking at people's biometric indicators; 'what time of day do people need this, what time of day would there be a competitive advantage?' and so forth. Maybe before a workout or late at night if they need to stay up another hour," he said.
As I proceeded to experience the remainder of the Go Vibe I felt none of the effects of my late night nor my walk from North Station. It was simply 10:30 on a weekday morning and my brain was firmly in working gear.
Once the Go Vibe ended I detached the module and Pal and I chatted some more. When I conduct an interview I always challenge myself to come up with interesting questions since I don't want people to feel like they've answered the same old things over and over, and ironically (or perhaps fittingly), the energy Vibe helped me come up with what I hoped were some fresh ideas.
"How do you actually edit the code behind the Vibe?" I inquired.
"We have custom-made software to develop Vibes," Pal said. "It's based on an in-house waveform creation tool. You can edit the Vibes then route them to different users. I have to approve a Vibe before we push it to actual users, but in testing we use a developer app for Vibes we've created."
"What's the decision point to release a Vibe to customers?" I asked.
"As human understanding of the brain advances, will Thync be able to streamline Vibes by taking advantage of these new insights?" I asked.
"Yes, the parameters will evolve. The first set of Vibes were basic, then they evolved to be more complex. A lot changed behind the scenes. The structure and architecture is like a whole language we created from making those thousand Vibes. We found a lot of the parameter space is useless or painful. Our eventual SDK will let customers navigate through the relevant parameter space and find what's comfortable to them, or better in some way. With regards to the play between the central nervous system and cognitive states, can we use that build Vibes that do different things, or work more efficiently? Absolutely. Earl Miller is our senior scientific advisor and a professor at Picower Institute. He's looking at attention, bandwidth capabilities of how many things you can focus on and how changes in patterns of large-scale activity can affect these types of information processing. I really hope we can get insight from that to build other Vibes. In the meanwhile I hope what we are doing elevates the whole field of using neuromodulation to learn how to influence someone's mental state in more positive ways."
"Seems like both the calm and energy Vibes might be especially beneficial on a plane ride," I remarked. I have to admit I'm not crazy about air travel nor airport security and that goes along with my desire to be productive on a plane to distract myself and get as much writing done as possible (as it turned out, my wife and I could indeed have used Thync during our flight to Texas for a wedding last weekend, during which United Airlines subjected us to delays and canceled flights which required us to fly from San Antonio to Phoenix to Boston to get home to our kids).
"There are many opportunities where both sets of Vibes can come in handy. I have a 6-month-old baby," Pal told me. "The calm Vibe and energy Vibe for a new parent are pretty amazing. You're experiencing sleeplessness and rough days and substances are not an option when dealing with your baby."
Any parting words?
"Yes. We're super-excited for the Vibes to get out to the world and for people to try it," Pal said. "We're not going to measure success by the number of people who buy it - only when we know that those people are actually having a positive impact through the Vibes is when we'll start to think about the launch as a success."
The walk back
I left Thync HQ with the energy Vibe still running through my circuits. It served me well as I walked back to North Station and I noticed the mental acuity felt as strong as the physical component. I am an amateur photographer and I never miss a chance to get meaningful or relevant photos of our fair city (as you can see from the above) so I took some detours and got several shots of historical sites without feeling rundown or fatigued. I got my northbound train just in time due to my pace.
Normally I would have been tempted to relax, unwind and goof off on the train ride (with more Stephen King), but I felt I still had a focus remaining from the energy Vibe. That focus provoked me to work on this very article, elaborating on my impressions and getting my quotes in order. In fact, I also came up with an idea for another article about using Wi-Fi on the MBTA and I fleshed out the outline during the rest of the trip. It only occurred to me as I rolled into the station that I hadn't any coffee that day for possibly the first time in years.
I worked as an IT guy for a clothing company a while back and I often joked that "Well, we may not be saving the world, but at least we're keeping people well-dressed in fashionable attire." That was really part of my interest in using technology to make the world a better place and to benefit its residents. What Thync is doing is inspiring, and as a student of consciousness I find the possibilities to be endless. I will definitely keep watching that space.
Scott Matteson is a senior systems administrator and freelance technical writer who also performs consulting work for small organizations. He resides in the Greater Boston area with his wife and three children.