Born from Alphabet’s “moonshot” division, NextSense aims to sell earbuds that can collect heaps of neural data—and uncover the mysteries of gray matter.
NextSense was born at Google and spun out of Alphabet’s X division. The startup’s focus is brain health—improving sleep, helping patients with epilepsy, and eventually enriching the lives of people with a range of mental conditions. The idea is to use its earbuds to capture an electroencephalogram, a standard tool for assessing brain activity. Just as an ECG tracks the fibrillations of the heart, an EEG is used to diagnose anomalies in brain activity. While some smart watches—Apple, Samsung, Fitbit—offer versions of an ECG and aim to spy on your sleep, collecting neural data has mostly been a can’t-try-this-at-home activity. Until now.
Standard EEGs are “a mess,” says Arshia Khan, a neurologist at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, who has done studies of those devices. To use the expensive machine in her lab, she has to fix electrodes to a person’s scalp. (“It leaves indentations on the head for a few hours, and if you use gel, it’s hard to shampoo it out.”) The device only works in a clinical setting and isn’t suitable for long-term studies. A handful of off-the-shelf, consumer EEG headsets are portable, but look incredibly awkward. If earbuds could deliver good results, that would be “fantastic,” she says. And not just for scientists.
For years, people have been shifting from tracking their health through sporadic visits to a doctor or lab to regularly monitoring their vitals themselves. The NextSense team is gambling that, with a gadget as familiar as an earbud, people will follow the same path with their brains. Then, with legions of folks wearing the buds for hours, days, and weeks on end, the company’s scientists hope they’ll amass an incredible data trove, in which they’ll uncover the hidden patterns of mental health.