Brainwave Biofeedback at Home? ReLax, it's Cheap and Cool!

photo: glogger

So this is a review of the ReLax Kit by OP Innovations, which (fear not), looks nothing like the photo above. It's quite a bit less scary.

The ReLax Kit costs less than $50, and promises to monitor your brainwaves, posture, and muscle tension using advanced bio-signal tracking.

It comes with a smallish TrueSense biosensor you wear on your forehead, no gel or anything required.  And it has a little controller thing that flashes colored lights based on how stressed you are.

Or, if you want to get fancier, the controller plugs into a PC to show you your actual brainwaves and muscle tension in real time on your screen.

Pretty amazing for less than $50, right?

I've actually checked out brainwave biofeedback before, because I've always been kind of a nutball curious, but home kits are insanely expensive and look terribly cumbersome and complicated to use.  So, when I got an offer to get the ReLax Science Kit for free to review, I was psyched!

Wanna hear how it went?

Overall Impressions of the ReLax Kit (for Lazy Product Review Skimmers):

This thing has really incredible and powerful technology for such a cheap price! You can indeed see your brain and muscles reacting to what you are thinking and seeing.  Early adapters may want to jump right on it before the OP Innovations people figure out that if they just made it prettier, a little easier to use, and a bit more reliable, they could charge hundreds of dollars for this gizmo.

On the other hand, this is a new product and there were enough glitches and difficulties that folks who want something really simple and trouble-free may want to wait until OP irons out a few of the user interface and reliability issues.

What You Get With The ReLax Science Kit

Here's a crappy photo of what it comes with:

There's a brochure, an elastic headband, a bio sensor, a controller thing with flashing lights, a small metal carrying case that I forgot to put in the picture, and a usb cable.

Component Quality

The elastic band seemed so flimsy as to be a joke, but then, it actually worked fine to secure the monitor to my forehead and was comfortable. Go figure.

However, on the first unit I got, the headband clips did not secure the unit to the headband properly and it kept popping off which was cause for much exasperation and cursing. It was NOT exactly helping me master my stress.

The brochure was helpful and has some interesting information, but it's pretty short and doesn't contain nearly enough information for technologically-challenged users like me.

But then, I'm not a science geek, and many of you would have no problem I'm sure.  The brochure may even be readable over at the ReLax Kit PDF part of the site, and there is more info on the product page if you are curious about buying.

There are some additional instructional videos on YouTube as well, featuring an endearing and adorable dude who is so psyched about the technology he seems to have forgotten how to shave. (How to activate and wear;  How to install the driver and softwareHow to read your relaxation.) And I believe they plan to beef up website resources in the future.

But it's not the future yet, and I had to supplement the brochure and videos with several emails to the kind and patient PR agent when I still couldn't figure things out. There are quite a few ways to mess up charging and using the unit and downloading and using the app, and believe me, I messed up in all the ways possible.

I have no idea how customer service would handle this were I not working through a responsive and dedicated PR agent as it is a small company based in Taiwan.

Especially since, for example, the first unit died not long after I got it and I needed a replacement.

Whoops!  Could have been bad luck or could mean quality control problems.  But the second unit worked just fine.

OK, so here's an actual professional picture of the forehead sensor:

And yeah, it is small and sleek, but chic it ain't.  It's, um, a bit homely.

If you decide to wear it as a fashion accessory, you may want to start off with geek gatherings or social occasions that fall on October 31. And perhaps pair it with just the right outfit.

photo: Doug Kline

Using the ReLax for Biofeedback

The simplest way to use it is to charge up the unit, put on the headband and then watch to see what color lights are flashing at you on the controller. Red and orange mean you're stressed, blue and green mean you're all mellow and chill. You can work on changing the colors by relaxing your muscles as well as your brain.

This is the part that's portable.  You can take the flashing lights thing around with you throughout your day, anywhere you care to go wearing a strange looking device on your forehead.

You will be the envy of everyone in line at Radio Shack!

There is a certain amount of variation in the lights even when you feel like you're basically in a steady state, so it's seems best to just notice the overall color trends. Or maybe I just have a particularly psychotic dynamic brain and forehead.

But the really cool part comes when you download the app and start watching your emg and brain waves on your computer.

You can set the difficulty level and train yourself to get better and better relaxation scores at higher and higher degrees of sensitivity.

And the EMG part is pretty straightforward.  It's fun to furrow your brow or clench your jaw and watch the red line that tracks your facial muscle signals go crazy. But then you settle down and the line gets flatter.

As to brainwaves, theoretically, you can even learn to pick out alpha, beta, delta, gamma and theta waves, which I was excited about.  I've actually bought those "brain entrainment" type audios that promise to guide you to meditative states using specific binaural beat frequencies, and I was hoping to see if they actually worked as advertised.

But I was too much of a moron to read the spectrographs properly and haven't hung with it long enough and pored through enough data to quite get the sense of the whole alpha, theta etc thing.

On the other hand, it worked really well to track at a basic level whether there was lots of "thinky" activity versus "relaxy" or meditative activity.

Check this out:

Here is when I was listening to a meditation audio doing my version of attempted meditation:

And here is where I was listening to a Sounds True interview featuring Rick Hanson and Tami Simon.

Notice how the thinky activity has a lot more going on at the top than the meditation music?

Or heck, it could just be that I was excited, being such a huge fan of Rick Hanson's that I stalk him all over the web, and due to the fact that Tami Simon (besides being all brainy like Rick), has such a sexy voice I could listen to her reading the user manual for my dishwasher in Farsi and I'd still be pretty darn attentive. (Though note: if you are not a middle aged lesbian then your mileage may vary. On the Tami Simon sexy voice question I mean--I have no idea about the brainwave part.)

Anyway, I think the differences suggest this little gizmo does seem to be able to read my mind! I just need to figure out better how to translate what it's telling me. Or, on the other hand, given the weird content of my brain, perhaps I am better off just knowing when I'm being generally thinky or not.

Want to Buy One and Check Out Your Own EMG and Brainwaves?

Well, the buying process could use some tweaking too! But you can go to the ReLax Science Kit page at the Taipei Trading Site or give this Ebay link a shot.

Would you folks want to peek inside your skull or train yourself to relax your muscles using biofeedback or does this all sound like crazy-talk?

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