Is focus a problem for you? (Ping!)
It can be for me. (New e-mail alert!)
Especially through this long stretch of working entirely from home. (Doorbell! Dog barks.)
So I was excited last week to get out of the house and head to Downtown Crossing to test out a new pair of headphones that will hit the market next year. Designed by the Boston startup Neurable, they are intended to help you understand when you’re focused and when you are distracted, and hone your ability to stay in the former state.
I sat down at a conference room table, and Mavi Ruiz Blondet, a Neurable engineer, helped me don a set of Bose over-the-ear headphones that Neurable has modified to sense the brain’s electrical activity, using 20 strips of conductive fabric wrapped around the soft earcups. Ruiz Blondet adjusted my hair and moved my glasses a bit so that the headphones would be able to effectively tune into my temporal lobe. A lanyard was placed around my neck, and from it dangled a small black box of custom-crafted electronics to relay information from my noggin to a computer for analysis. White cables connected the box to the headphones. I was using a prototype; Neurable aims to make its final product more compact and streamlined.
My goal was to watch the computer screen in front of me as words popped up, and hit a key to indicate the color of each word: red, green, or blue. The catch? Sometimes the word “blue” was rendered in green, or “green” in blue.
But I had to focus on hitting a letter key representing the actual color I saw on the screen, in less than 1.2 seconds. During Round 1 of the test, I would be working without distractions, and during Round 2, some alerts would pop up on the screen, simulating an incoming phone call or chat message. I was supposed to click those alerts to make them go away — just as you might if you were, say, trying to write a newspaper column — and then get back to correctly identifying the color of each word.
Just before I sat down, I watched as a 23-year-old intern, James McIntyre, buzzed through the two rounds of the test with a calm intensity. (McIntyre was distracted just briefly when one of the two dogs in the office, Princess Gracie, jangled her tags.) Could I top McIntyre’s ability to stay focused? Or would I be a scatterbrained wash-out?
Neurable was hatched on the campus of the University of Michigan in 2015, where CEO Ramses Alcaide earned his doctorate. Shortly after it was founded, Alcaide moved the startup to Boston. In 2017, the company raised $2 million in initial funding from a group of investors that included Boston-based firms Accomplice, PJC, and NXT Ventures, along with the Kraft family’s investment arm. At first, the company sought to tune into brain waves to enable you to control what happened while wearing a virtual reality headset. In 2017, it unveiled what it touted as the world’s first mind-controlled VR game. You could pick up items and battle robots just by thinking.
But after demonstrating that system at a major computer graphics conference in Los Angeles, Neurable decided to shift its focus to helping people focus. Instead of adding its sensors to the back strap of a virtual reality headset, it would augment a pair of headphones — the sort of device you might comfortably wear for hours on end.
“Our main goal is to try to take neurotechnology and try to improve people’s lives,” Alcaide says. Interruptions and lack of focus were always a problem in offices, he notes, but with the COVID pandemic and the sudden shift to working from home, “the social accountability isn’t there to self-assess your own productivity.” (In other words, the office environment provided you with cues and role models that encouraged you to stay focused on work — sometimes.)
When Neurable brought in test subjects and outfitted them with the headset to use for several hours, Alcaide says, the device helped provide insights into when they are most productive. With one subject, he says, it seemed that she was better off tackling harder projects in the morning, and taking a later lunch when her attentiveness began to wane.
So far, Neurable has raised $16 million in funding. On Tuesday, it is launching advance pre-orders for its headphone product, which it calls Enten. (Alcaide was born in Mexico, and the name is short for entender, which means “to understand” in Spanish.) It will be priced at $399, with some discounts available for early purchasers. The product won’t start shipping until May of next year, Alcaide says.
“The final version will have all the electronics integrated into the ear cup,” he explained. “It will just look like a normal pair of headphones.” You’ll be able to play music if you choose, and you’ll also have the option to activate a “do not disturb” feature to turn off bleeps and bloops when you’ve hit a straightaway of consistent focus.
Over the last five years, as sensors for heart rate or electrical activity in the brain have become less expensive, startups have set out to create devices that monitor things like focus, stress levels, or the quality of sleep, says Zen Chu, a health care entrepreneur and MIT lecturer. One key moment, Chu says, came in 2017, when the US Food and Drug Administration released guidelines for neurotech, which allowed most devices to be brought to market without requiring regulatory approval.
When I tried Round 1 of the focus assessment, I immediately hit a few potholes. I was too slow to hit the key indicating which color I was seeing, and several times I simply picked the wrong color. But I developed a system: I tried to guess what color was coming next, and then when the word popped up, I quickly noted whether it was different from my guess. I tried to tune out the fact that Alcaide was sitting behind me, and just concentrate on what was happening on the screen. My accuracy was 92.7 percent, compared with McIntyre’s 97.6 percent.
But in Round 2, when different kinds of alerts popped up on my screen in between the colorful words, I smoked McIntyre. I didn’t try to read any of the text in the alerts, and only looked for the “Dismiss” or “Close” button. Then I calmly resumed trying to predict what color the next word would be. Not only was my accuracy rate better than McIntyre’s (90 percent compared with his 85 percent), and my response time quicker, but Neurable’s software showed me getting back into a more highly focused state after each distraction.
“You were motivated to be paying attention, and potentially motivated to beat James,” Alcaide observed. “He may have just been doing the task. Motivation plays a huge role in paying attention.”
So it’s possible that I may need Neurable’s headphones. (Incoming text message.)
It’s also possible that I may need a colleague to be competitive with, as I was with McIntyre. (Kids asking for breakfast.)
But without either of those things, this column took far too long to write. (Impatient e-mail from editor.)