'Gain skill, strength and endurance, faster.' That’s the promise of Halo Sport 2, the second-generation, neuroscience-based brain stimulating headset that claims it can help you master skill-based challenges like playing the piano, quicker.
Halo works by sending signals to the part of the brain that controls movement, putting that area into a state of hyper learning. But does it really work? I turned guinea pig to find out.
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When it launched back in 2017, I was among the first to test the first generation of Halo Sport and it’s fair to say we had mixed results. So when the Halo team announced an improved version of its technology, I was keen to give it another go.
This time, however, rather than testing Halo’s brain-hacking headphones in a fitness training environment to see if it could make me a better athlete, I decided to explore whether this brain trainer could help with a very specific skills challenge – I wanted to know if Halo could make me better at darts. That’s right, pub darts. Arrows.
Not because I liked the idea of spending loads of time in the local pub, rather I wanted to test Halo’s ability to help me improve at an activity that requires fine motor skills, precision and good muscle memory. So we devised the Halo Sport 2 Darts Test.
The first thing we need to be clear about here is that the protocol that follows was created with advice from the Halo team in a bid to make the test as fair as possible but this is not a truly rigorous scientific test.
I planned to throw sets of 100 darts, aiming to top score with each dart, that’s to say shooting for the Treble 20 with every single dart I threw.
Using a Unicorn Smartboard to record my scores in a smartphone app, for each set of 100 darts I logged the total score after all the darts had been thrown for each round, along with how many treble 20s I hit during the training block.
I also threw one set of darts randomly at the board without aiming to see how this un-targeted throwing would compare to the other results.
In total I threw more than 6,500 darts over the course of a 6-week period.
If you’ve not come across Halo, it’s a wearable device that essentially aims to help you adopt new motor skills faster. It uses a complex science called neurostimulation to put the part of the brain that controls movement into a state of hyperplasticity, also known as a state of increased-learning capacity.
Whether you’re studying a language, trying to play Mozart on a piano or hit 180 in darts, all skills are learnt by repetition. This innate ability to adapt to training and learn new skills - Neuroplasticity - is what drives human improvement.
By stimulating your motor cortex for a period of 20 minutes prior to – or during – training (so-called neuropriming) and increasing the excitability of motor neurons, Halo Sport puts your brain into a state of heightened plasticity known as “hyper plasticity” or ‘hyperlearning', for up to an hour.
During this time, the brain’s ability to adapt to training becomes more potent and that allows an athlete’s brain to learn quicker and achieve results faster. The Halo team say that by placing your brain in this state, its ability to adapt to training becomes more potent so you can essentially store new skills quicker, without having to complete as many repetitions. A bit like you’ve put the train on better tracks.
And while headphones that mess with your brain to make you learn quicker might sound like far-fetched science fiction there’s a lot of scientific research to back this up.
Just like the first-gen, setting up Halo Sport takes about five minutes and is extremely simple. You download the partner iOS or Android app, pair the headset with your phone and you’re good to go.
Halo has made some hardware changes to make using the headset easier. Instead of three soft foam primer pads that hold the nodules, which need wetting under a tap before usage, there’s now just one pad with three sections and 56 nodules. So you only need to pop that out and run it under the tap. It’s also easy to replace with clear indication of where the central point is. That makes for a little less fiddling, though you will still get looks if you do this in a gym changing room.
You wear the headset just like a set of regular over ear headphones, the only difference is that you need to ensure there’s good contact between those dampened nodule pads and the top of your head. Luckily, the app notifies you when you have a good connection.
Priming is controlled in the app where you can choose between Legs, Core & Arms for when you’re working on larger muscle groups like squats, running, dancing or martial arts. Or Hands & Fingers Session for when you want to work on fine motor skills like dribbling a basketball, working on your tennis grip, or playing an instrument. You can also adjust the intensity of your neuropriming using a 0-10 rating –10 being the strongest.
Halo recommends setting this to a comfortable level. For me, that was at seven out of 10. Any higher, and the tingling sensation became more like a hard hairbush scratch that was hard to put up with for a full 20 minutes.
Once that’s done, you simply hit Start and you’re free to train as normal while a 20-minute countdown clock keeps tracking on your time in priming mode. Once the 20 minutes is up you’ve then got an hour in a ‘primed’ state and again there’s a handy counter that shows you how long you have left in this optimised learning state.
The headphones work via Bluetooth, and once you’ve started priming you can also leave your phone behind and Halo will continue to work. The headset will beep if your priming pads lose connection, and you can adjust accordingly. They’ll also beep after 20 minutes to tell you when the priming phase is complete.
The app has been updated too with notable improvements such as a history view of your sessions and reminders to prime. Though sadly it still doesn’t let you log any performance metrics in relation to that session.
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The sound quality in the Halo Sport 2 is significantly improved, though headphones themselves are still not the most comfortable to wear. At 415g, the second-generation cans are actually 75g heavier than their already-bulky predecessors. I was aware of that weight while playing darts and I’d be concerned that it’d be an issue if you plan to use Halo for priming or audio-only during anything more rigorous.
In the context of the test I conducted, Halo’s practicality was less of an issue than when I tested the first product in a gym. I was throwing darts at a board hung in my spare room so I could leave my headset there, ready each time I needed to use it. There was no need to lug it to and from a gym.
But if you’re a fan of lightweight in-ear headphones or subtlety, these might not be for you. They aren’t the best looking and they aren’t the most comfortable sport headphones I’ve worn. However, if you’re more bothered by how you perform than how you look, and you can handle a little discomfort for the greater good, then this might be a moot point.
So let's get into the data. Bear with us, we are going to get very statistical on you.
I've compiled the throwing sessions in the table you can see below covering those sessions when the Halo Sport 2 was in use and not in use.
If you compare the pre-training benchmark score with subsequent benchmark scores, I perform worse in the benchmark tests after the first round of practice. But I register higher numbers after the second wave of practice for both the non-primed and primed, with a 20.4% increase, while the primed benchmark saw a 17% improvement. So what that suggests is that I generally improve with practice.
|Pre-training benchmark||Score: 1,156||Ave per dart: 11.56||T20s hit: 0|
|1st Non-Halo primed practice||Ave score: 1,237||Ave per dart: 12.37||T20s hit: 26|
|Post-training benchmark||Ave score: 1,031||Ave per dart: 10.31||T20s hit: 0|
|1st Halo primed practice||Ave score: 1,243||Ave per dart: 12.43||T20s hit: 41|
|Post-training benchmark||1,106||Ave per dart: 11.06||T20s hit: 1|
|2nd Non-Halo primed practice||Ave score: 1,334||Ave per dart: 13.34||T20s hit: 21|
|Post-training benchmark||1,392||Ave per dart: 13.92||T20s hit: 4|
|2nd Halo primed practice||Ave score: 1,339||Ave per dart: 13.39||T20s hit: 30|
|Post-training benchmark||1,356||Ave per dart: 12.56||T20s hit: 2|
However, when we look at Halo’s effectiveness, I score the highest benchmark total when not primed.
By contrast, during the practice sessions, I hit higher 100-dart totals while in a primed state, though the change between the average scores in the non-primed and the primed sessions were less than half a percent in both training blocks. So, not really that much of a change from using Halo.
What’s perhaps more significant is that the average scores for the second training blocks were higher than the first with both the non-primed and the primed practices showing close to an 8% improvement. Again though, the results with or without Halo are almost identical.
The highest singled 100-dart score I logged during the entire experiment – 1,589 – was also clocked during a non-primed practice session.
If we dig a little deeper, however, and look at the number of Treble 20s hit – arguably a better sign of pure accuracy – I consistently hit more T20s while primed. The thing with darts is that wild darts that miss the main target can quite easily drop into a high scoring positions on the board unintentionally, and this can skew the total scores. I hit close to 25% more treble 20s while in a primed state.
Anecdotally, I also know that during training sessions where I was in a primed state I would regularly have spells that felt like flow state, almost like I could see the matrix and I was able to cluster darts more effectively, my throw felt fluid and natural. It was almost easier to repeat the same throw from dart to dart, though not always in the desired T20 slot. Sometimes all three darts would land within an inch but in the 1 or the 18 slot.
There is of course one element missing to this and that’s coaching. While Halo can help your brain learn tasks, the darts technique I was continually applying in this test was far from perfect. In fact, it’s possible that I’ve taught myself to hit 26 (20, 5 and 1) with alarming efficiency rather than my brain adopting the correct technique to hit consistent treble 20s.
But that’s something to factor in here when considering Halo. It can’t magically make you brilliant in its own right, you still need to use it within a coaching environment to reap the benefits.
Has the test proved with any certainty that Halo is my fast ticket to the darts world championship? Well, not quite but has the process improved my darts? Definitely. How much of that is down to spending more time practicing generally and how much is down to the Halo effect is still quite hard to fathom. And I still think that’s one of Halo’s biggest potential problems. It’s not to say that it doesn’t work, it’s just quite hard to demonstrate that it does.