Alison K. Lanier
It sounds like something out of a mad scientist’s basement—imagine a $1.5 million project that boils down into a wearable piece of sleek-shiny tech. When it is placed on the head of a paying subject, it improves that subject’s brain function by stimulating neural activity via electrical impulses.
At first blush, the project, dubbed Halo, comes across as more than a little dubious. Spearheaded by a neuroscientist, an engineer, and a “consumer mobile guru with oodles of hardware experience”—as Tech Crunch so aptly phrased it—the project boasts an admirable and accomplished brain trust whose Halo just finished a $1.5 million round.
Tech Crunch had a few other pithy comparisons to draw—“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” for one—but the company’s description sounds far more grounded than the sci-fi parallels would have us believe. “Halo’s technology employs a range of non-invasive, low energy, battery operated stimulation modalities that work on the nervous system to boost cognition,” the company’s CEO and the neuroscientist, Dan Chao, described to Tech Crunch. “Halo builds on the field of neuromodulation, where recent science has employed electromagnetic waveforms, infrared light, ultrasound, physical and other stimulation techniques.”
The company describes its product as “writing to” the brain rather than “reading” it—nothing too reminiscent of a dystopian “Star Trek” episode. In what is colloquially called biohacking, Halo would be an affordable feedback response device, a more direct, non-technical brain-booster like Lumosity.
Early Internet Presence
With many commenters on Tech Crunch already volunteering as alpha testers, the issue of consumer hesitation about the playing with electricity and brainwaves does not seem to be an overwhelmingly immediate concern. Alternating between Professor X comparisons and excited commentary, the readers demonstrate what will probably be the product’s initial market of curious and trusting enthusiasts as well as their beta, if not alpha, testers.
The company’s website is minimal to say the least. With graphically interesting little tidbits of data offered up in a neat flow chart, it gives very little truly illuminating or technical details. But the concept of neuromodulation is straightforward enough, and apparently practically workable. Recent studies at Oxford, wrote the Verge, have shown that neuromodulation can improve math skills without the use of an implant.
“Practical and safe,” said Haloneuro.com, “[is] related to technologies with regulatory approval since the 1970s and shown to be safe in more than 200 clinical trials over the last 10 years.”
A Project of Passion
The Verge calls it a “far-fetched gadget” that uses “a fancy word for pumping electricity through your skull.” The publication described the Halo gadget as a project of passion for Amol Sarva, “an entrepreneurial journeyman” who realized that he “had the freedom to pursue whatever was most interesting to [him]” after working on the Peek email device and the Spotify-friendly Gramofon router, so he “made a list.”
The staff on this project really holds water—an impressive gallery of former CEOs, thinkers, and inventors. Nevertheless the story of Halo’s conception reads like the quirky genius tinkering that ends with flying a key kite into a lightning storm. The first prototypes, reported Verge, used Radio Shack materials, and some of the stories that came out of prototype testing read like cautionary tales.
“It was pretty crazy,” admitted Sarva to Verge. Verge relates that, in one early trial of Halo, the electrodes were placed on Sarva’s own head, “too far forward, in front of his brain and directly next to his eyes.” The charge then, went straight down his optic nerve. “I turned it on and there was this bright flash and then I was basically blind,” Sarva said. “Luckily it cleared up after a few minutes. We’re much better informed now about which parts of the brain we need to stimulate.”
With reassuring tidbits like this, it’s easy why, despite the impressive array of names associated with it and the product, enthusiasm is marred by some Hollywood-inspired hesitations. A headset to boost brain function reads very much like a hardware version of “Limitless” or something out of Doctor Horrible’s basement.
Safety and Sci-Fi
Nevertheless, however many punchlines Halo finds itself written into, let’s not forget that those “Star Trek” ear antennas eventually found themselves startlingly accurately reproduced in Bluetooth devices. Sci-fi anticipations, rather than a humorous point of dismissal, have often before fallen along the way of foreshadowing. The basis for the CEO’s enthusiasm for the project was apparently, according to Salva’s comments to the Verge, a sci-fi story in itself.
However the safety concerns of a commercial electro-shock device—which is what these sci-fi preludes call to mind—do not, even casually, seem insignificant. Consider the amount of trouble over-enthusiastic consumers got themselves into with Wii controllers flying across America’s living rooms on release days.
Consumers can only wait and see how the highly capable team of developers comes up with, over the course of further testing, in terms of hopefully fool-proofing and fail-saving Halo against unwise users who become overenthusiastic with their new Professor X headsets. Until then, the promise of futuristic brain-boosting devices, while it sounds too good to be true, may very well be a medical and casual tool if it can be made user-friendly and safe.
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