A Camcorder for the Brain

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The Capita Research Group wants to know what's on your mind. And they have ways of finding out.

On a recent morning in midtown Manhattan, a group that included ad creatives, a Wall Street rainmaker, and a charcoal-suited would-be investor huddled in a conference room to witness something strange: the brainwaves of a trade journalist, displayed on a television screen.

It was a demonstration of technology developed by the Pennsylvania-based Capita Research Group. Capita means "heads" in Latin, and a peek into the minds of consumers is what the company promises to deliver. According to David Hunter, an effusive and fidgety Philadelphian who is Capita's CEO, his company has constructed the "first-ever dry EEG measuring device." In English, that means Capita has produced a brainwave-monitoring headset no bigger, and no more invasive, than standard Walkman headphones. As an ad created by Burkhardt & Hillman, agency of record and hosts on this particular morning, suggests: "Think of it as a crystal ball. Without the gypsy."

"When the headset goes on a person's head, basically this turns your head into a camcorder," Hunter explained, the headset perched, innocently enough, on his own gray camcorder.

What the device allows Capita to measure is attention, expressed as a number called the Engagement Index. By tracking how engaged subjects are in what they are watching, advertisers can tell if spots are working the way they expected them to, drawing viewers' attention at the right places.

Capita's client list includes Leo Burnett and N.W. Ayer, as well as media companies Viacom and Turner. Starcom, Burnett's research and media wing, has used Capita's invention to determine, for example, how commercials perform when run amidst different programs. "It was the perfect methodology for something like that," says Starcom global research director Kate Lynch. "So we were very pleased with it."

Assuring the assembled creatives, who could plainly hear the hoofbeats of stampeding test groups in the distance, Hunter proclaimed: "We believe if this technology is put in the hands of the artists, it obviates the need for client-side testing." Or as Capita research manager Kenneth Rhines added, "We consider this tools for you. Not rules for you."

Hunter claims ads that are recognized as top-notch by creatives generally score high on the Engagement Index. Goodby's award-winning spots for E*Trade, for example, score very well by the measure - although, sadly, neither Goodby nor E*Trade has ever engaged Capita's services to find this out.

Finally, the main event: The brainwaves of a trade journalist, displayed on a television screen. The reporter's head was outfitted, an episode of Friends was presented, and ... then ... nothing.

Flatline.

Ron Burkhardt of Burkhardt & Hillman reports that a loose wire in the mobile unit brought up from Philly was remedied just minutes after the journalist's departure. In any event, these results should not be taken as a negative reflection on the already softening ratings of Friends. Or of trade journalists.

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