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Interaxon, a Canadian venture-backed start-up, set out with a goal to make devices for users to move objects with their minds.
After that didn't work out, the team of engineers and scientists shifted to something a little less ambitious but would still entice for millions of people.
Enter meditation, which is getting more popular as people look for ways to combat their stressful lifestyles and stay healthy.
The company, which is backed by almost $30 million in venture capital, created a consumer wearable, called Muse, that measures the brain's electrical rhythms and provides real-time feedback to help users' meditate. The company refers to the system as a "personal meditation assistant."
On Tuesday, the Muse got an upgrade. The device now tracks a wider range of health signals, including heart rate and body movement, and has more educational content and a dashboard for users to track progress. It calls that new product "Muse 2" (available for $249).
The company's original device, which took more than a decade to produce, was released in 2014. Since then, Interaxon says it has sold more of these brain-sensing devices than "any other system in history," and it has "hundreds of thousands" of users.
A few weeks before the launch, we invited the Muse founders to pop by CNBC office this month. As a lapsed meditator, I was curious to give the new device a try.
Once I got a demo from the founders, I found it fairly easy to fit it around my head on my own. The trick was to tuck any loose strands of hair behind my ears. I didn't find it uncomfortable, although I wore the device for long enough to leave a faint line around my forehead that stayed put for about 20 minutes. So I wouldn't recommend wearing it right before a date night or job interview.
(I should mention that for those who are fashion-conscious, various co-workers did note my resemblance to Olivia Newton-John in that infamous "Physical" video.)
Once I got set up with the device, I downloaded the accompanying Muse app for the iPhone. A calming female voice asked me to find a comfortable position, close my eyes and take a deep breath. "Muse is now listening to your brain signals," the voice told me. So of course, I tried to banish any negative thoughts before realizing it couldn't literally read my mind.
At that point, we were ready to start a two-minute meditation. I had a few options for sounds to listen to while meditating. The Muse team selected the one with birds and rain. It sounded a bit like the middle of a rainforest.
I don't regularly meditate these days, but I was reminded why I should. I felt a lot calmer after a few deep breaths. I heard the sound of rain in the background, which got louder when my mind jumped to an errand I needed to run after work (the louder the rain, Muse told me, the busier the mind). I pushed those thoughts away, concentrated on my breath, and after a few seconds, I was rewarded with the sound of a chirping bird (that meant, apparently, that I'd sufficiently calmed down).
After we wrapped up, I examined a graph on the Muse app that showed me how I did. I did see a few birds, which meant I'd reached a less anxious state a few times during the meditation. And I thought I noticed a correlation between the moments I felt calmer and the data I saw in the app, but it might have been coincidental.
My takeaway? The Muse 2 got me to meditate, and I found the feedback useful. I'd love to try out the guided meditation feature. I could see that being particularly helpful for people like me who are intimidated by meditation.
My only complaint: I personally found the sounds distracting, and I tended to fixate on them at times rather than on my breath.
The team behind Muse also created a feature with the new Muse for users to "out-meditate" their friends and co-workers.
So I challenged Indre Viskontas, a neuroscientist who keeps a close eye on the latest technologies in the brain-technology space. I was curious to hear her thoughts on the Muse — she's not affiliated with the company.
It was a cool experience, and I wondered whether it might help competitive people learn to meditate. But we tended to trigger each other in our more stressful moments, as the cacophony of sounds was distracting.
In the end, Viskontas gave the Muse, and other devices in the category, a mixed review. She noted that it measures brain waves, which only tells one part of the story about how the brain works.
"We're sort of seduced by the idea that we can look inside our brains and that will tell us something new," she told me. "We forget that our behavior is a reflection of our brains and something as simple as you know, how you feel."
But Viskontas still thinks these technologies hold a lot of promise, especially for those who have trouble with meditation. For some people, it's a nonstarter to rely on thoughts alone.