Use Your Noggin: Brain-Controlled Computing in Marketing

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Welcome to the future. It's better than you hoped.

In fact, the future doesn't even require you to be a Jedi knight. All you need to control things with your mind are a headset, an iPad and a circuit board.

Design, creative and advertising projects are starting to latch on to mind-controlled technology. Last week, production company B-Reel's U.K. office released "Mind Tricks" -- where the fantastical idea of running slot cars using your mind was brought to life.

"It sounds complicated because we're not used to using our mind as a way to interact with objects," said Riccardo Giraldi, creative director at B-Reel. "The things we're using are super simple."

The "things" include a Mindwave headset from Neurosky, a Scalextrix car, and Arduino, a circuit board that can connect computers with physical things -- iPhones, Wii, or in this case, your brain. As your brain emits signals -- marketers are currently working with simplistic ones like "relax," "focus," "attention," or "meditation," -- the computer can be trained to understand the signal and perform some sort of 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.

But 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, old-school computer to work. It was so cost-prohibitive and labor-intensive that use was limited to the field of medicine, especially for people that had lost limb movement and wanted to use brain signals to trigger movement.

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.

"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 hardware become 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 Pavillion 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.

"Right now we're one of the only people with a specific brainwave application software," said Coleman, who used to work in the events and promotions industry until joining Garten at InteraXon.

The company also worked a project at TEDx Toronto with agency Proximity where people competed to concentrated and "fill up" martini glasses and a promotion with Wrigley's gum where headsets measured people's chewing activity. The faster they chewed, the more "flavors" they could taste.

Future projects for InteraXon include a partnership with an online travel brand -- Coleman cannot disclose who -- to create "vacation pods." Customers can sit in a pod, slip on a headset, and be transported away 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?'" said Coleman.

Toyota has also gotten into the BCI act, with a recent partnership with Boston-based Parlee Cycles, along with agency Saatchi LA and tech partners Deeplocal, to create a bicycle and a helmet that could "read your mind" and shift gears accordingly.

A headset in the helmet read EEG signals emitted by the brain. The software is then "trained" to recognize certain patterns in the signals and accordingly, shift gears. The helmet is also able to take input from the bicycle -- cadence, wheel speed and rider heartbeats -- and then to understand patterns. Information was also displayed on an iPhone connected to the bike. "The possibilities are endless," said 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 co-ordinate."

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

Entertainment, too, is a big space. Myndplay, a media player that allows you to control movies and games with your mind, is one of Giraldi's favorite examples. The project is also working on creating interactive films that you can participate in using your brain.

From the useful, to the trivial. Brain-controlled ears, called Neocomimi, debuted earlier this summer from Japanese company Neurowear. The ears "stand up" when the brain is concentrating and lie flat when relaxed or distracted -- for use either in the classroom or for cosplay.

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

Giraldi said that it's just a matter of time. "People are going to be disturbed when they don't know what to expect," he said. "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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