May the Force Be With Brands

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Controlling objects with your brain was once considered the stuff of science labs and Jedi Knights, but thanks to advancements in and mainstreaming of technology, agencies, production companies and marketers are starting to add mind-control to their brand messaging portfolios.

Recently, production company B-Reel's U.K. office released "Mind Tricks" --an experiment that lets users control slot cars with the power of their brains. "It sounds complicated because we're not used to using our mind as a way to interact with objects," says Riccardo Giraldi, creative director at B-Reel. "The things we're using are super simple."

These "things" include a Mindwave headset, created by Neurosky, a Scalextrix car, and Arduino, a circuit board that can connect computers with physical things. As your brain emits various signals --marketers are currently working with basic ones like "relax," "focus," "attention," or "meditation"--the headgear captures them. Using electroencephalography (EEG), the recording of brain signals, the computer can be trained to translate them into a specific action.

But brain-computer interfacing, the technical name for mind-control, is not a new thing. In fact, research on BCI has been around since the 1970s, with early inquiries focusing on understanding brain signals and developing software to translate it.

What has changed in the last thirty-odd years are the prices. According to Trevor Coleman, COO at Toronto-based InteraXon, a thought-controlled computing company, there has been a revolution of sorts in BCI technology in the past few years. Previously, headgear used to cost upwards of $6,000 and needed stalwart, powerful computers to work. It was so cost-prohibitive and labor-intensive that use was limited to the field of medicine, like creating mobility solutions for people who had lost limb control.

Now, there are off-the-shelf, affordable devices (under $200 in many cases) that only need an iPad to work. In 2009, companies like Neurosky and Emotiv released consumer-grade headsets, leading to toy box (and Jedi) essentials like Uncle Milton's "Force Trainer" or Mattel's Mindflex, which challenge players to move balls with their minds.

The everyman's Force trainer
The everyman's Force trainer

"They've allowed people like us to create new things," said Giraldi of B-Reel. "It's like with the iPhone, once the API was opened up, app development started, that's when it's special."

And once the hardware became accessible, software development took off.

One such software company is InteraXon, which was formed in 2007 when Canadian scientist Ariel Garten decided to commercialize technology developed by cyberneticist Steve Mann--sometimes called the "human cyborg" due to his work with wearable computing. InteraXon's biggest project to date has been in partnership with the Government of Ontario during the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. Visitors to the Ontario Pavilion at the games were trained to use their brainwaves to change the colors of the lights on the CN Tower, Niagara Falls and Parliament Hill--over 3,000 kilometers away.

Olympics visitors work out their brains to make over the skyline.
Olympics visitors work out their brains to make over the skyline.

The company also worked on a project at TEDx Toronto with agency Proximity that challenged people to "fill up" martini glasses just by concentrating, as well as a promotion for Wrigley's gum with Stone Canoe that used the headset technology to measure people's chewing activity. Players competed to see who could chew the fastest, using headsets that measured muscular activity (electromyography). The faster they chewed, they were rewarded with flashing lights, music and other gimmicks.

Future InteraXon projects include a partnership with an online travel brand--Coleman cannot disclose who--to create "vacation pods." Customers will be able to sit in a pod, slip on a headset, and be transported to a destination of their choice. Headsets will measure their level of relaxation and adjust the surroundings accordingly. "Then, when you get home, you have an email that says 'Now that you've had your five minutes in the Bahamas, why not book a week?'" says

Toyota also tapped BCI technology in a recent partnership with Boston-based Parlee Cycles, part of its ongoing Prius Projects campaign. The brand worked with Saatchi LA and Deeplocal, the developers behind Nike Livestrong's Chalkbot, to create a bicycle and a helmet that could "read your mind" and shift gears accordingly.

A headset in the helmet reads EEG signals emitted by the brain. The software is then "trained" to recognize certain patterns in the signals and shift gears accordingly. The helmet is also able to take input from the bicycle --cadence, wheel speed and rider heartbeats--and then understand patterns. Information is also displayed on an iPhone connected to the bike. "The possibilities are endless," says Patrick Miller, Deeplocal's lead engineer on the project. "A GPS attachment could also figure out certain routes you always take, where you switch gears on that route and then switch them for you when you're at that specific coordinate."

BCI uses in marketing vary. "Brands that are ready to experiment and associate their name with innovation will jump in," says Giraldi. The easiest way is to sponsor some sort of installation and associate your brand with the technology.

Entertainment, too, offers fertile ground for BCI developments. Myndplay, a media player that allows you to control movies and games with your mind, is one of Giraldi's favorite examples. The company is also working on creating interactive films that you can participate in using your brain. BCI has also found its way into fashion --or, whatever you prefer to call it. Earlier this summer Japanese company Neurowear debuted Neocomimi, brain-controlled ears that "stand up" when its wearer is concentrating and lie flat when he or she is relaxed or distracted. Once can only imagine its usefulness in the classroom--or in cosplay.

And what about the old "Are they going to put a chip in my brain" issue? Coleman says clients are sometimes wary when BCI is discussed, but they have to know that there is no issue of reverse brain control here. "Our technology is entirely passive," he said.

Giraldi believes that it's just a matter of time. "People are going to be disturbed when they don't know what to expect," he says. "In the next few years more powerful stuff is going to come out and then there will be a greater level of fear but eventually, people will understand."

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