Meditation is one of those things I’ve always struggled with. The benefits, when I actually do it, are clear to me. I’m calmer, more focused, and less stressed. Yet I do it for a day or two, and then let my practice slip into nonexistence. Or I’ll try to do it, but in actuality I’m just sitting there with my mind bouncing around like crazy. So when I heard that Smith Optics (the maker of very nice sunglasses and snow goggles) had a new pair of sunglasses that acted as “training wheels” for mindfulness, I was eager to check them out.
In Smith’s words, “Lowdown Focus is the first brain sensing eyewear in the world that gives you accurate, real-time feedback on your brain’s activity level during a cognitive training session with the Smith Focus App.” Yep. Brain-monitoring shades, y’all. Brave new world. When you’re wearing them, there is absolutely nothing that betrays the secret that these aren’t your standard sunglasses. In fact, they look really good. I wore them around LA for weeks and I had a couple compliments on them, but nobody suspected that I was actually wearing an electroencephalogram (EEG).
EEGs have been used for decades to monitor brainwaves. Typically, this involves putting some conductive sticky pads on your face or scalp, which have long wires leading to a monitor. On the Lowdown Focus, these sensors are subtly hidden in the nose pads — where three sensors reside — and at the end of each glasses arm, just behind your ears. They’re black rubber and blend in seamlessly. On the inside of the right arm is an LED that indicates charge and connectivity status, and next to it are contacts that the USB charger clips to. That’s the only thing that gives the hardware away. It’s definitely the only electroencephalogram I’d wear to the beach.
The glasses have Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) connectivity, which is how they connect to your phone (iOS or Android) and the Smith Focus app. You tap the right side of your glasses to wake them up, pair them within the app, and you’re off to the races. Sort of. Before you can roam freely throughout the app, you have to go through a series of tutorials — 14 of them, in fact. That may seem daunting, but each is only a few minutes long. They set up how to use the glasses and introduce you to the fundamentals of meditation, as taught through the app (made by Interaxon). As you make your way through the different lessons, new elements within the app are unlocked, included guided meditations, scheduled training, as well as the ability to change soundscapes, and unlock higher-level lessons later on.
It's important to note that these are designed to help teach you how to meditate for recreational purposes, not clinical purposes. They aren't intended to be used as a medical diagnostic tool, and indeed they can't be. Because you have to recalibrate the device before every session, it's actually very easy to game the system. If you think stressful thoughts during the calibration, when you calm down for you meditation session itself you will seem like a zen guru because it's all relative to that baseline you established. You'll rack up birds aplenty. There's no incentive for doing this, though, because you'd only be cheating yourself.
In general, I would say the style of meditation that it teaches is extremely pragmatic, rather than new age-y. It mixes in quotes from Eastern thinkers as well as athletes like surfer Laird Hamilton and tennis player Novak Djokovic. The reason being that mindfulness has been shown to help control anxiety, improve attention and accuracy, help manage emotions under pressure, tune out distractions, and better handle stress, all of which applies to athletes in competition as well as the rest of us schlubs. Early lessons focus almost entirely on breath work and breath awareness, which is in line with many schools of meditation. The special sauce comes in the form of the feedback you get from the EEG monitoring.
When you start a session, you’re supposed to close your eyes and relax and try not to control your thoughts at all. This establishes a baseline for what your brainwaves are doing. Once in the session, it can tell if you start veering off the rails into an unfocused state, and it can tell when you drop in to a deeper level of calm focus. I know, it sounds like BS. It isn’t.
I did roughly 50 sessions with the Lowdown Focus during the few weeks that I had them, and I was shocked at how accurate they were. When I started thinking about something stressful, there was a visible spike in my readings. When I dropped into a more centered, focused headspace, I could see that on the graph, too. (This displays after each session.) But more to the point, you can hear when it happens. The app has real-time audio feedback designed to help you stay present and aware of what your mind is doing. So, in the beach scene, as you get more unfocused, the weather starts to pick up. The wind and waves blow louder, alerting you that you’ve gotten offtrack. When you sink in to a calm focus, the wind stops, the waves quiet, and you can hear birds chirping. (Birds are actually a sort of award for staying in a stable, focused place for an extended period.) If you veer off course and then right the ship, you’re awarded a recovery. You are shown how many birds and how many recoveries you’ve earned each session, and how many you’ve accumulated from all of your sessions combined.
It takes time to get used to the real-time audio feedback. In my earlier sessions, I found that the feedback — either positive or negative — could really throw me off my center. As I grew accustomed to it, however, I found it more helpful than hindering. That said, there are some major caveats here, almost all of which have to do with the app. Not all of the soundscapes are created equal. I found that the beach scene, for instance, could induce some anxiety when it sounded like a storm. The same thing went for the forest scene, which has very strong rain sounds that cut in rather abruptly. Humans have natural fight or flight responses to these sounds, so I found them to be counter-productive. The ambient soundscape, however, is just some soft, droning, musical sounds; I found it much easier to relax during that. I think this could be solved by simply improving the beach and forest soundscapes.
Speaking of sound, the volume within the app is wildly, jarringly inconsistent. You’ll be in a nice, quiet soundscape which finishes with a soft gong, only to have your guide yell, “great job!” in your ears many decibels louder. Not chill! Some sessions are very loud and some are whisper quiet — so quiet I can’t make out a single word when on the subway, even with the volume in my powerful Sony earbuds turned all the way up. When testing it with a first-gen Google Pixel XL, I had the app crash on me a minimum of four times a day. Generally, this was only when it was first starting up or when I was reopening it, but there was a lot of unexpected behavior. You can use it in airplane mode (which is good, since planes stress a lot of people out), but you have to have the app already open before you switch your phone into airplane mode. If you don’t have internet, the app won’t open. That’s very annoying.
Also extremely annoying: the app goes mute and pauses if you turn the screen off. If you’re sitting down for a half-hour session, and your eyes are going to be closed, you really don’t want your phone bleeding battery life through its screen that whole time. The whole birds thing can be a bit confusing, too, as they often don’t always seem to correspond to staying in a focused state, and sometimes they make no sound whatsoever.
I do kind of wish the glasses could check in with you periodically during your day as you wear them to see how you’re doing. At the very least, it would be nice if the app would remind you that you haven’t done a session yet today. That seems like 101 functionality. The guided sessions in the app are very nicely done (I’m an insomniac and the Sleep sessions do a great job of knocking me out), and they don’t require the glasses, but it would be nice to have the option to use the glasses with them so you could check what your brain was doing afterward. Smith claims the battery life is 14 days on standby, and five hours of active use, but I found it got a bit less than that, likely because when the glasses get jostled (either in my bag or on my face) it wakes up the Bluetooth radio. It wasn’t too far off, though.
The good news is that almost all of these dings are issues with the app which can (and hopefully will) be fixed via over-the-air software updates, and some may be exclusive to the current Android app. The hardware is almost all win. The glasses look really good (and come in two sizes, depending on your noggin size). They use Smith’s ChromaPop lenses which are very clear and actually do make colors look a little more lively. They’re comfortable, if slightly heavier than standard sunglasses, but not so much as to be burdensome. You can also have Smith install your prescription in them. (Your optometrist can do it, too, but that will void your warranty.) The only big knock on the hardware is the proprietary charger, which is extremely fiddly to align and clip into place. It feels pretty flimsy, too. Also, if you have a lot of hair behind your ears you may have to do some adjusting to get good contact points there.
Those things aside, I really liked the glasses and the overall experience. In general, I’ve been feeling calmer, more focused, and more productive. If anything, they’ve forced me to calm down and relax more often than if I wasn’t trying to test them. After this review period is over, I hope to keep up the practice I’ve slowly been building.
That leaves us with one final sticking point: the Lowdown Focus cost $350, which is likely to be an immediate deal-breaker for many. That said, high-end sunglasses, like those Smith makes, are routinely in the $100–$250 range, and if you wanted an EEG device that does the same thing, you can get one from Interaxon (which makes the Muse tech in the Lowdown Focus), but that costs $250 and it’s definitely not something you’d want to wear out in public. Someone serious about starting a meditation practice might well spring for some classes, too. So when you combine all of that, the Lowdown Focus don’t come off as outrageously priced. They do what they promise, for the most part, and they looks good doing it. That means you’re much more likely to be wearing them anyway, which in turn will make you far more likely to use them regularly. Just fix the app and it’s the mindfulness support group I’ve always wanted, only cooler.
Brent Rose is a freelance writer, actor, and filmmaker, currently traveling the U.S. living in a high-tech van, looking for stories to tell. Follow his adventures on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and at ConnectedStates.com.