Mastering mindfulness with Muse's Ariel Garten
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Mastering mindfulness with Muse’s Ariel Garten

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Meditation apps are gaining ground as consumers look to combine technology and transcendence. Research backs the benefits of the practice. As a report in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) noted, the deliberate mindfulness delivered by meditation offers business leaders “the ability to transcend their egos.”

Samsung NEXT’s Christina Bechhold Russ had the chance to chat with Ariel Garten, psychotherapist and founder of meditation technology company Muse, about her experiences in the mindfulness market, and how her wearable device is helping quantify the qualitative benefits of self-guided meditation.

Finding product-market fit
Muse is changing the way people meditate, but success didn’t come overnight. It took Ariel time to find the right fit.

Ariel was, it seems, a born entrepreneur. “My mother was an artist,” she says. “She would just do her own thing and imagine something that could exist and paint it.”

Meanwhile, her father built a business renovating and selling houses. “So, for me, the thought that you would work for somebody else was crazy,” she says.

Ariel started in fashion. By 22 she had a storefront in Toronto and sold her clothing across North America, but she wanted more. She closed the store and leveraged her neuroscience training to work with Steve Mann, inventor of the wearable computer. Using a brain-computer interface that Mann built at the University of Toronto, Ariel discovered it was possible to digitally connect mental process with physical outcomes.

Ariel quickly realized this was her next business, and began experimenting. They developed proof-of-concept demos like thought-controlled beer taps and toasters but Ariel wanted to do more and discover something that could positively impact people’s lives every day. “And we recognized, oddly, the solution was meditation,” she says.

Making it to market
Muse is a compact, wearable device that slips on like a pair of glasses and uses a clinical-grade electroencephalograph (EEG) to track brain wave activity. But the path from initial design to distribution wasn’t always smooth.

First, Ariel and her team had to take “128 channels, web prep, EEG with a ton of fiber optic cables and a massive computer, and make it the size of a very, very small pair of glasses.”

Next, the Muse team had to “create this beautiful experience that just intuitively feels like your mind,” she says.

Thanks to its initial development success, the company raised capital through crowdfunding and VCs. In 2012, Muse told its Indiegogo backers they would receive the first-generation device in nine months. It took 18 months, but they delivered.

But, Ariel says, Muse needed clear marketing that would “tell people what this is, why they want to buy it and how it works.”

Iterating innovation
In 2018, Ariel released the second generation of Muse. While the original provided real-time feedback on brain activity during meditation, Ariel realized “we had the opportunity to actually give you real-time feedback on multiple systems in your body.”

By incorporating a photoplethysmogram (PPG) sensor, the newest iteration provides heart rate data. “But it’s not like a number on your wrist,” she says, “you actually hear the beating of your heart like the beating of a drum.”

Feedback from the sensor improves the ability of users to slow their heart rate, calm their bodies, and manage their physiologies.

Muse also developed an improved calibration algorithm. Leveraging the company’s massive user database to understand key brain processes, Muse takes only a few minutes to calibrate for each user and “create really tailored experiences that are meaningful for each individual.”

This is critical in a world where wearable devices are quickly becoming commonplace but don’t always offer clear-cut value propositions — intelligent innovation that combines physiological data with clear feedback and simple calibration is critical to capture consumer interest.

Supporting long-term success
The most common feedback Ariel gets from Muse users is “it helped me meditate.” Many users also say Muse is the foundation of their meditative journey. But Ariel recognized the need to keep people engaged and committed to mindful meditation.

To support initial gains, Muse uses weather-based feedback. When users’ minds are unsettled, for example, they hear stormy sounds through their headphones. When they’re calm, they get the soothing sounds of nature. To drive long-term success, however, Ariel tapped the benefits of gamification — with a twist.

Because the aim of meditation is equanimity — mental calmness and composure — “when we introduce a bunch of gamification and give you points and scores, all of a sudden you’re striving for something,” says Ariel.

Muse introduced a bird to help calm users. When users are quiet and peaceful for five minutes, they hear a bird. Once they recognize the bird is tied to effective meditation, they get excited. “And what happens? It flies away,” she says.

In effect, the bird becomes both reward and reminder by providing positive feedback for peace while also reminding users of their meditative purpose: Equanimity.

Muse is changing the meditation market, helping users improve their inner peace with the help of precise neurological and physiological feedback. For Ariel, the ultimate goal of human-machine interfaces is supporting “all of these things that are fundamentally human and that really return us to who we are and what we want to be doing with our lives.”

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