Sensors and Sensibility: Catching Neurosky’s Brainwave in San Jose
“I spent countless mornings as a kid sitting at the breakfast table trying to move my cereal box. I believed I had ‘the force,’ and I sometimes imagined I moved it an inch.”
By Gillian Claus
Photography by Daniel Garcia
I stand wearing fuzzy cat ears on the 9th floor of an office building overlooking the annual Santafication of Cesar Chavez Park, thinking about brainwaves and identity. The cat ears are called Nekomimi, and they are mounted on a small headset. You can wiggle them just by using your mind. That’s the idea anyway. Only my set is just spinning and whirring noisily. When I finally focus my attention, the ears snap upright so suddenly that it makes me jump.
The ears work because of a tiny biosensor, Neurosky’s Brain Computer Interface technology. By converting emotions into algorithms, the sensor can analyze your raw brainwaves. The simplest of these emotions is attention vs. meditation, i.e. either your mind is focused or it’s not. In more primitive times, this would have been signaled by a string of drool hanging from your lip.
On the desk before me is a row of metallic heads, each wearing a headset. The first model, affectionately referred to as “Diver Dan,” looks hardcore Maker Faire (link Maker Faire to:
http://makerfaire.com/bayarea/2011/) and dates back to 1990 when Korean researchers Jongjin Lim and Dr. KooHyoung Lee were studying mind-control technology. At the request of Lim’s daughter, they managed to build a remote-control car, driven only by brain impulses and eye movement.
Lim, Lee and their toy car found their way to Stanley Yang in San Jose where they created Neurosky (link Neurosky to: http://www.neurosky.com/). The technology behind that car now powers some of the hottest games by Mattel and Myndplay as well as ground-breaking diagnostic tools.
The sensor filters out the background noise and zeroes in on the tiny electronic pulses made by our brains, like streamlined little brothers to giant EEG machines. Data can be collected via an inexpensive lightweight headset which involves no gooey gels or electrodes. That’s why the Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine may allow snorers to take home a headset rather than spending a night in the lab. Children with focus problems can see just when their attention wanes. Brain damage can be assessed in high school athletes.
At this point, CEO Stanley Yang arrives, sporting a monkey-faced Paul Frank sweater and blue sport coat. He does not look old enough to have worked more than 20 years in the tech industry, but he is evidently young enough to recognize that it is cool to have your sci-fi headquarters a heartbeat away from the Tech Museum.
Born in Taiwan, Yang moved to the States in 1978, just in time for Star Wars. He confesses that his need to go high-tech was inspired by that movie.
It would seem natural that their first product was a toy called Star Wars Force Trainer, but his dreams don’t stop at light sabers. Yang sees the biosensor as a gateway to a more efficient future, one in which every electronic device in your daily life becomes personalized. He explained to me his fantastic visions of intelligent refrigerators that sense your identity as soon as you touch the handle and present the contents accordingly.
I imagine what that would be like: just by touching the doorknob when I get home from work, my kitchen could come alive, play a little mood music, and maybe even prep that dry martini.
I glance down at my phone to check the time, and Yang asks, “Why do you call your smartphone smart? It doesn’t even know it’s you.”
It may not know it’s me, now, but the way Neurosky’s sensor is being used by countless companies today, that reality may not be too far off. For example, Toshiba uses the sensor to record reactions to songs while you listen. Sharp is having soccer fans use these headsets during Euro Cup 2012 to determine which country’s soccer fans have the highest heart rates and vocal excitement. Move over emoticons, make way for we our real emotions. The future looks dim for Facebook’s “like” button.
On my way out, Yang urges me to try their latest partnership with Mattel, Mindflex Duel. I slip on a headband and try to focus on the blue ball in front of me, rather than just looking like an extra from Glee. A blue ball hovers in the air over a small cup. I face my opponent and, just by concentrating, the ball begins to move away from me. Seconds later, I have won.
My journey downstairs was disappointing after visiting Neurosky. The elevator seemed so mundane; I had to press the buttons, and I couldn’t even select the Muzak with my mind. But, I sense that will be changing soon…
125 South Market Street, #900
San Jose, CA 95113