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Trying out the headset for the first time

Foc.us was kind enough to provide Neurogadget with one of their recently released Transcranial Direct Current Stimulator (tdcs) headsets to review. One day after it’s arrival, I have already unboxed it, and done some preliminary testing. So far the experience has been overwhelmingly positive – this product is every bit the futuristic device I was expecting it to be. That being said, the verdict is still out on whether or not it enhances video game performance.

The first thing I can say upon unboxing Foc.us, is that the product is beautiful. The attention to stylistic detail can only be described as artistic. Everything from the design of the carrying case to that of the glowing blue indicator light is impressively sleek. You may be able to build a tdcs system in your basement, but it’s definitely not going to look like this.

Next comes the user manual. It is essential that everyone read the manual before using this product. There are a few extremely important points in there that I want to underscore.

First and foremost “This is not a toy.

I am as excited as anyone to use neural stimulation in an everyday context…but never lose sight of the fact that you are literally running a current through your brain.

As tempting as it may be to use this all the time to improve your gaming abilities – don’t. The precautions about waiting 48hours between uses are there for a reason. You don’t want to induce long term changes in brain structure using this device. Similarly, you don’t want to talk anyone with a family history of epilepsy into using this device – even if they have personally never had a seizure. Did I mention that this isn’t a toy?

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Internal layout of the Foc.us carrying case, still nestled inside it’s box

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Location of the brainstem in the human head.

The manual also issues a warning that you should not place the electrodes in such a way that current can be passed through the brainstem; however, it doesn’t mention where the brainstem is, or why we should avoiding passing a current through it. The brainstem regulates breathing, heart-rate, and all kinds of things that are responsible for keeping you alive and functioning. Passing a current through the brainstem could disrupt these functions. Don’t ignore this warning. Here on the right is a diagram to help you locate the brainstem.

Furthermore, don’t leave this device anywhere that someone who cannot understand this warning (for instance, a child) can reach it. It only takes 3 button presses to start a stimulation session, and this looks suspiciously like a tiara. “This is not a toy.

Let’s get to the fun part!

Alright, now that the scary serious bits are out of the way, let’s get back to the fun part! Using the headset.

Setting up the headset is extremely straight forward. It comes with everything you need to get started (sponges, charger cable, and even a small water bottle for wetting the sponges). In my case, it was even charged when I took it out of the box. The circular sponges fit perfectly into the electrode cups, and the water dropper makes this easy and mess free.

Once the sponges are in place, it’s time to set the parameters. This was the only part of the process I found somewhat frustrating – I will admit that I am anxiously awaiting the release of the Android and iPhone bluetooth apps to control the settings. The button and the blinking light mounted on the headset are visually pleasing, but sub-optimal for navigating through the 4 different stimulation patterns and 4 stimulation levels. For those of you who would be inclined to program an app yourself, the Foc.us website provides an API.

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Inserting sponges into the electrode cups

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Situating the electrodes correctly on the forehead was also somewhat challenging – even with the visual guide provided on the website and in the manual, I spent a solid fifteen minutes finding a position where the headset would be comfortable and would not induce phosphenes, the flashing lights that you experience when the electrodes are placed too close to the eyes. These are reasonably unsettling, but do not persist once the stimulator has been removed.

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Foc.us headset in action

The stimulation itself feels a bit like pinching, or perhaps a slight burn. It’s not the most pleasant sensation, but it’s definitely not painful. It’s understandable that this would happen since much of the current passing between the electrodes is passing through the surrounding skin.

After my misadventures with the induced phosphenes, I thought it best to wait the suggested 48 hours before running a full stimulation session. In the next post I will explore the effects of the headset on video game performance, as well as some background on what tdcs. Stay tuned!

Photography: Anja Boskovic