Humans love to control how they feel. Booze and coffee have been perking us up and lubricating social situations for millennia. Mood-enhancing technology, on the other hand, usually tries to emulate a cup of joe or a glass of wine but without the need for rinsing your liver. I’m generally OK with pumping chemicals into my body, but with a few mood-changing gadgets catching my eye in the run-up to this year’s CES, I thought I’d give some a go. The hope was that I could avoid the usual uppers-and-downers routine that a week in Vegas demands.
Mood enhancer: Coffee and ibuprofen
It’s 8 AM on New Year’s Day. Most of the world is nursing a hangover after ushering in 2017. Me? I’m getting into an Uber, headed to the airport. I have the usual mixed feelings about attending CES. It’s a fun show, with lots of new gadgets, but it’s also our busiest working week of the year. Our team gets to Las Vegas early, as there’s so much preparation to do. I’m feeling pretty good, though, running on hope and caffeine (the gadgets will come later). Despite a near-death experience on the highway as someone cuts us off at an exit, I’m generally in good spirits.
Current feeling: Light anxiety
Mood enhancer: Camaraderie and beer
Monday is my first full day in Vegas. The first night in the hotel we stay at every year hasn’t done much to improve my mood. It’s not a bad hotel; it’s just become such an integral part of the CES experience for me that it serves to underscore the reality of what’s coming. I’m also feeling a little worse for wear after overindulging at a team dinner the night before. The day’s agenda is pretty relaxed, though. We have our management meeting, followed by a team all-hands, where we go through the plan for the week ahead.
The Engadget staff is spread out across the globe, and CES is pretty much the one time that we all get together (save for a few noble souls who stay home to keep the news machine running). Seeing everyone again is a great motivational lift and a chance to shoot the shit ahead of the impending tidal wave of work. I enjoy dinner with a few colleagues and embrace a few more fermented beverages to take the edge off of my excitement (or is it fear? It’s hard to tell by now). This is pretty much how every CES begins.
Current feeling: Optimism with a slight hangover
Mood enhancer: Mio Slice and light exercise
Three days in and I’ve barely touched a gadget. Today that changes as meetings are in full swing. I knew I wanted to try out technology that helped change or control one’s mood, but I’d need some sort of objectivity to underpin the whole thing. Enter the $129 Mio Slice. The Slice is an activity tracker much like a Fitbit. Mio tries to differentiate itself with a holistic metric it calls Personal Activity Intelligence, or PAI for short. (Get it? Slice/pie.) In addition to tracking your motion, the Slice measures your heart rate, so it can tell how much effort that movement requires. It’s $20 cheaper than Fitbit’s new Charge band, but it doesn’t look as nice and there’s no GPS either.
With the Slice, the goal is to get a PAI score of 100 or more per week. The physical and mental benefits of getting up and moving around are well known, and I’m hoping the Slice will encourage me to do a bit more of each. I also plan on using the all-day heart rate monitoring as a general indicator of my stress levels.
Before that, though, tonight is when the the first official CES business takes place — an evening press event called Unveiled. It’s basically a technological flea market, and it’s one of the more stressful parts of the week. The Slice seems to confirm that, with my pulse rarely dipping below 115 all night. However, unlike the wave of well being that tends to follow a run or gym workout, by the end of the night my brain is like cotton candy, and I want to punch a man at the show who is dressed as a robot sounding a horn all the way through the event.
Current feeling: Punchy
Mood enhancer: Nuheara IQbuds
After last night’s debacle with horny robot guy, I’m not taking any chances. There’s another event this evening like Unveiled, and I want to protect both my ears and my sanity. Nuheara’s $299 IQbuds seem to fit the bill. They’re wireless headphones that also improve your hearing through a mix of noise cancelling and speech enhancement (useful for tonight!). They can also help your mood by drowning out the world with music.
Before the dinner, I go out in the desert for the Drone Rodeo. I have hopes that being outside will help bump my PAI score on the Slice. There’s only one problem: The Slice has run out of battery somewhere along the way. The claimed runtime is about five days, but I’ve been wearing it for one and a half at best. Of course, I don’t realize this until I’m out in the desert, and I’ve left the charger back at the hotel. So without the judging eyes of the Mio Slice spying on my healthiness, I enjoy two of the best food truck grilled cheese sandwiches I have ever had. Thank you, Strip Chezze. Mio, not so much.
Back in Vegas proper, I turn on a dime and head out to the evening press event armed with my IQbuds. I tried them a few weeks ago back in San Francisco and liked how they worked. At the event, though, it’s a different experience. The buds still work, and the voice enhancement is helpful for understanding people over the din of the background noise (and thankfully, no robot dude).
The problem is that the buds keep generating feedback noise right into my ears. When this happens, the people you’re talking to can also hear it, and it’s a bit distracting. I take them out for the rest of the show but continue to use them throughout the following morning. The IQbuds are effective and that feedback isn’t a total buzzkill, but I’m looking forward to trying them out again once they finally hit the shelves.
Current feeling: Tired with cheese sweats
Mood enhancer: NuCalm
It’s day five and time to pull out the big guns. Enter NuCalm, which uses microcurrents (via sticky pads), topical cream for addressing adrenaline and binaural-style audio tracks for a triple-threat attack on my shaky trade-show temperament. After reading the company’s own description — “The only patented system for balancing and maintaining the health of your autonomic nervous system” and a “reset button that calms and focuses your mind while allowing your body to recover” — I’m pretty excited.
I had a fitful sleep the night before (thanks to all the cheese, I imagine), so when I wake I’m eager to give NuCalm a spin, especially as today is the day the CES show floor opens. My email inbox is already a shit show, and my calendar is full of near back-to-back appointments and reminders. I wash my face to wake myself up, apply the topical cream (with unspecified amino acids), stick two pads behind my ears as instructed and choose one of the neuroacoustic audio tracks preloaded in the NuCalm app. With headphones and eye mask on, I lie back and enjoy the most zen 30 minutes I’ve had in the past few weeks.
I should note that I have forgotten the instructions given to me by NuCalm’s CEO, so I jack up the microcurrents to level eight (I should have left it on level one). I’m going in at pro levels here without even knowing it. The tingling behind my ears is comfortable, and the audio paints an acoustic forest setting. The darkness caused by the eye guard means my optical senses are left to their own devices.
After about five minutes, I’ve fully settled in, and my mind starts to wander. I’m thinking about nothing in particular, though I become aware of my breathing shifting from shallow inhalations to deeper, presleep rasps. Every now and again, the rattle of the hotel housekeeping carts going past my room invades my senses. At times, the isolation gets a bit overwhelming and I feel disoriented, but once my 30 minutes are up, I feel … good? Good enough that the sad hotel breakfast that follows doesn’t taste like the usual rubber and cardboard. Good enough that, heck, I might even be ready for CES.
During my time with NuCalm, I have been wearing the Mio Slice (the battery problems are now somewhat ameliorated by a firmware update). When I check the app, I can see that the NuCalm has had a tangible impact on my heart rate. I dropped from about 80 to 90 beats per minute to around 65 for the duration of my session. The fact that I was lying down listening to pretty chill audio will likely have contributed, but it’s the first gadget I’ve used that might have done the trick.
The NuCalm unit that I’m using is the company’s industrial model, designed mainly for clinical use (think calming people in the dentist’s chair). At CES, NuCalm is showing off a prototype called ReNu, a more accessible model for consumers. It costs over $800. But that’s at least not as pricey as the multi-thousand-dollar device I’m wearing.
Current feeling: Calm, rejuvenated
Mood enhancer: Cambridge Sound Nightingale
Of all the days I’m at CES, Friday (or rather, Thursday night) is the one that requires I enjoy a decent night’s sleep. I have three back-to-back stage interviews to conduct in the morning, and nothing kills a conversation more quickly than a yawning interviewer. My weapon of choice is the Nightingale by Cambridge Sound. It’s basically a fancy-pants white noise generator that you can control through an app or web interface.
The Nightingale is composed of two speakers that plug into outlets (the devices pass through outlets so you’re not losing any plug sockets). You choose from a number of audio “blankets” to fill the room, but white noise is the default (others include forest, ocean, etc.). There’s also a night light, which could be handy for people with kids. That or exhausted CES reporters who keep forgetting where the hotel bathroom light switch is.
I’m skeptical at first, but our hotel walls aren’t soundproof, and it’s easy to hear people walking past, as well as the near constant rattle of housekeeping trolleys (in the morning, at least). With Nightingale plugged in, I quickly doze off into what turns out to be the best night’s sleep of the whole week. It could be a number of factors, but the timing for me is perfect and I feel about as good as I can while onstage with David Copperfield.
Later that day, I also get a chance to try out an updated version of Thync’s mood-enhancing wearable. I tried the first edition two years ago and enjoyed it, so I’m eager to see if it has improved. It certainly affects how I feel. These things are always hard to quantify, but it’s weirdly enjoyable, that gentle electric-pulse tingle on your back. The real impact of this device will come a day later while taking some much needed horizontal time.
Let me jump forward a day and explain. On Saturday I test the sleep-enhancer mode on Thync in my hotel room. Something about the light, prickly electrical stimulation is indeed helping me sleep, as the companion app promises. But the effect doesn’t stop there. About 10 minutes in, I suddenly become lucid but also aware that I am still snoozing.
I’ve had lucid dreams before. This is different. My brain feels active and I can see colors washing over my eyes that coalesce into kaleidoscopic forms, but I can feel my body in a slumber. The experience is trippy, and I like it. Note: I have a lucid-dreaming app installed that prompts me to check if I am sleeping or not about six times per day; in other words, I actively seek to lucid dream. I doubt this effect is common for those not looking for it.
Current mood: Transcendental
Mood enhancers: B&O Play H9 headphones and the Basslet wearable subwoofer
Saturday rolls in and the home stretch is in sight. Along with the abovementioned gadgets, my week has been enhanced by some unexpected items. Perhaps the biggest surprise is a pair of headphones from Bang & Olufsen (the $499 B&O Play H9, to be precise). For years I’ve been something of a naysayer about noise-cancelling headphones. I generally like to play my music loud, to the extent that real-world noises don’t spoil it, at least not enough to pay extra for ANC. I’ve also never had a problem with sleeping on planes and so on (a typical use case for the people who suggest them to me).
What I finally realize at CES is, there is a peaceful alternative to music and/or background noise. The H9 doesn’t give you perfect silence, but while working from Engadget’s busy trailer outside the conference hall, it is enough to drown out the background chatter and the occasional lady burps (and giggling) from one of my colleagues working to my right. I end up using the H9s all week, and half the time it’s for the noise cancelling — no music.
The other half of that time I use them as nature intended: for playing throbbing music, something this next gadget helps with. I’ve spent most of the week enjoying/explaining/defending to my colleagues the curious Basslet ($199). If active noise cancelling was a surprise route to tranquility, then the Basslet is an audio adrenaline shot in the eyeball. When it rumbles on your wrist in time to the bass of your music, it’s as if you’ve added an extra three levels of volume and engaged the tactile senses. A lot of people don’t seem to get it until they try it, but for bass-heads it’s a no-brainer.
Anytime I need a pick-me-up throughout the week, I find myself reaching for the Basslet. Even more so today, which is the last day of the show, and spirits are starting to lift across the team. Later, while demonstrating the Basslet to a colleague, I place it on her head. She remarks how relaxing it is, so perhaps there’s a hidden dual use here. Or maybe she’s a bit weird — I can’t decide.
With the show finally coming to a close, the best feeling is knowing that I can go home and sleep in my own bed. The technology I have tried, though, makes me eager to experiment more once I get home. NuCalm has me curious to try a few more sessions. The Nightingale might also become a permanent fixture in my sleep routine (if it doesn’t annoy my spouse). I think it’s pretty clear that the Basslet will spend a lot of time on my wrist, and I thank the H9s (and Dana’s burps) for teaching me the joy of active noise cancellation.
Current mood: Thank God that’s over