The scientists at Emotiv have done the impossible: created a brain-wave-reading headset that lets you conjure entire worlds using nothing but your mind -- a breakthrough that could be worth billions. Now comes the hard part.
I'm sitting in a darkened room, attempting to move a large block with nothing but my thoughts. I stare at it intently and imagine myself physically tugging on it, trying to flood my mind with a sense of strain and determination. But the block doesn't budge. I try again, concentrating, concentrating: Move, damn you; I am your master. After a long moment, the block trembles a bit, then slowly skids toward me a few feet before stopping. Encouraged, I mentally bear down until the block resumes its sliding, and this time it keeps going. I'm gripped by the immensity of what I have just accomplished: effecting a change in the world around me without moving a muscle. Well, that's not entirely true. I may have squinted a bit.
This isn't a dream; it's science -- and soon, maybe, a big business. OK, the block was only a virtual one on a computer screen, but that's a nit. The same technology that converted my thoughts into action on the screen someday could be hooked up to a real-life backhoe, robot surgeon, or microwave oven, placing any of those objects at my mental whim. This thought-conversion technology is composed of some extremely sophisticated software and a piece of headgear that looks like a cross between a telephone headset and a skeletal bike helmet. Embedded in the headset are 16 electrodes that press lightly on my scalp, monitoring the electrical signals generated by the 3 pounds of toothpaste-like goo sealed in my skull. The signals are my brain waves, the stuff of thought and emotion. The headset passes the signals to the software, which extracts patterns that can be used to control anything that's run by electronics.
Brain waves usually are monitored in hospitals or research labs, but I'm in a conference room at a company called Emotiv, where a few dozen scientists have developed the gear and software that quite literally read my mind, allowing me to play a sort of video game with nothing but sheer thought. This is not a rough, spare-no-expense research and development prototype of some distant-futuristic product, but rather an upcoming stocking stuffer. For $299, you and yours will very soon be able to vaporize onscreen enemies with an angry thought, have your online characters smile when you smile, and see video games react to your level of excitement.
And that's just for starters. Backed by some impressive partners, Emotiv has a long-range strategy that sounds like a business-school case study from the 22nd century. After enabling us to control video games with our minds, Emotiv intends to let us control most everything else we do on our computers and, after that, what's around our homes. In 10 years or so, according to the company's co-founder Tan Le, we will all go around in a world that will respond to our mental commands. Fed by data wirelessly streaming in from a few freckle-size sensors embedded in your scalp, your stereo will know when you are feeling blue and what sort of music cheers you up. Movies will know when you are getting bored and cut to the action. Car advertisers will know when you are feeling the need for speed. Your doctor will know when you are depressed. Doors will open at your mental command.
Given all this, you might expect that Emotiv would be sitting pretty. But if you think building a mind-reading device is tough, try marketing one. It turns out the old saw about building a better mousetrap doesn't hold in the context of a product most people hesitate to believe is possible and aren't sure they want anything to do with if it is. And that has left Emotiv with a challenge every bit as big as conquering mind reading: figuring out how to present its breakthrough device to the world in a way that will transform it from a slightly scary gadget to the next must-have consumer technology. And Emotiv has to do it while taming persistent hiccups in the system, herding video-game producers into tailoring games to the device, and trying to halt a skidding launch date before competitors -- yes, there are other companies making mind-reading devices -- pick off pieces of the market. "Emotiv faces some crucial decisions it absolutely has to get right," says Stephen Prentice, an analyst at Gartner (NYSE:IT) who has sampled the company's device.
Le admits that such challenges are real. But once consumers give the headset a try, she predicts, a lot of the doubts will themselves be vaporized, and demand will snowball. "We see it becoming a totally ubiquitous device, allowing you to interact in a seamless way with everything else in the world," she says.
That grandiose strategy reflects the intensity and outsize ambitions of Emotiv's founders, and especially of Le. Her entire life has been a string of hard-won, improbable triumphs, and she is loath to lower her standards to anything less than spectacular. Going all in with Emotiv doesn't scare her. "When you start with nothing," she says, "you don't get attached to a lot of things. You end up unafraid to push outside your comfort zone."
It's not entirely true that Le started with nothing. She had a bottle of poison. Her mother kept the bottle and little else on the small, calamitously overcrowded boat on which she, 4-year-old Tan, and Tan's younger sister, grandmother, aunt, and uncle fled the Communist government in South Vietnam in 1981. At first, they had felt lucky to have avoided being captured and jailed. But floating in the South China Sea, they weren't so sure. Pirates were chasing the hapless vessels and picking them off one by one. Hence, the bottle of poison: Tan's mother was determined to grant her children a swift and relatively painless chemical end if their boat should be overtaken. "She didn't tell us about any of the horrible stuff, but she didn't have to," says Le. "You see the fear on people's faces, and you know."
The women and girls were kept in the stifling lower deck all day to make the boat a less appealing target, but they were allowed some fresh air late at night. On the fifth night, when the boat was out of fuel and passengers were down to their final rations, Tan, though she had been warned not to speak while above deck, couldn't resist remarking to her mother on the sudden appearance through the clouds of a wide patch of brilliant stars. "Those aren't stars," her mother gasped. "Those are lights." It was a British tanker steaming alongside. They were rescued and taken to a refugee camp in Malaysia. Three months later, they were given a choice of countries that were accepting refugees. Tan's mother had heard that Australia was a young country with a big future, so that's where the family ended up.
They settled outside of Melbourne, where Le's mother, still in her early 20s, picked vegetables and struggled to learn English in night school while raising her daughters. It's not hard to see why Le grew up with an unshakable belief in her ability to accomplish anything. Her mother, who went on to get a bachelor's and then a master's degree, started a cosmetics business and then a consultancy aimed at facilitating Australian-Vietnamese trade. In 1997, she became mayor of Maribyrnong, a suburb of Melbourne, becoming the first Vietnamese woman to be elected mayor anywhere outside of Vietnam.
Grateful that her family had been able to find a comfortable place in Australian society, Le grew up wanting to help others do the same. At 15, she joined an organization that aids Vietnamese immigrants. Smart, ambitious, and disciplined, she was elected the group's president at 18. Somehow, she also found time to complete her schoolwork and entered Australia's prestigious Monash University at 16. In 1998, Le, then 20, was named Young Australian of the Year, a highly publicized government honor that made her a national celebrity and put her on a speaking circuit, where she hobnobbed with prime ministers, scientists, and international captains of industry. That same year, she graduated with a combined degree in business and law.
Le took a job at one of Melbourne's most prestigious law firms, seeing it as a natural extension of her community service work. But by the time she was 22 and a full-fledged lawyer, she found she couldn't stop thinking about the successful entrepreneurs she had met. In particular, she was captivated by the high-tech moguls, some not much older than herself, who had the ability to forge new types of electronic ties that left people better connected to one another and to the world. "There was a technology revolution going on, and I didn't want to just be a facilitator," Le says. "I wanted to be part of the creating."
In 2000, as her restlessness was peaking, she delivered a speech at the University of Melbourne. Afterward, she was approached by a young Vietnamese student who was studying business and information technology on a scholarship at the nearby Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. This was Nam Do, like Le newly aspiring to high-tech entrepreneurship. The two hit it off so well that they decided to try to start a company, one that would give Le a chance to make her contribution to the connectivity revolution.
Their idea was for small bar-code scanners that could be built into cell phones so that consumers could aim their phones at products and get a text message back with product information and price comparisons. Telcos weren't interested in the bar-code part but were impressed with the high-speed text-messaging capabilities -- these were pre-American Idol-voting days, and mass text messaging seemed a novel idea. Le and Do sold licenses for the software and stuck in a clause that would allot them a modest-sounding five cents for every message handled by the system. Within a few years, their software was handling 150 million messages a month; you do the math. In 2003, Le and Do sold the company, which they had owned outright. They were 26, rich, and looking for a new -- and bigger -- idea.
Le knew where the pair could grab a little inspiration. A few years earlier on the speaking circuit, she had been at yet another dinner event, feeling a bit overwhelmed as a young Asian woman in a sea of suits, when she spotted another misfit -- a middle-aged man in cargo pants, with wildish hair tucked under a sideways baseball cap. This turned out to be the scientist Allan Snyder, who had a prestigious award of his own to boast about: the Marconi Prize, a near-Nobel-level honor he had been awarded for his role in the development of fiber optics. Snyder and Le got on well and stayed in touch. Le and Do went to dinner at Snyder's home, where he enthralled them with his work on using magnetic fields to stimulate human brains. He went on to bemoan the fact that the computer revolution had shut out emotions, which are, after all, what drive us. The industry had thrived on digital signal processors -- chips and software that could handle images and sounds. What was needed, insisted Snyder, was an emotional signal processor.
The notion rang every bell in Le's head. Snyder was describing a technology breakthrough, an entrepreneurial adventure, and a way to form an entirely new, world-changing type of connection. "We stayed up until 4 in the morning talking about it," Le recalls. "By the time we got together again a few months later, we realized none of us had been able to get the idea out of our heads."
In fact, Snyder had been approached by larger companies about developing his idea. But he liked the idea of starting a company with Le and Do. "There are magical qualities to both of them," he says. "I just had a strong intuition this could work with them in charge." Le brought in another friend: Neil Weste, a prominent Australian chip designer who had sold his last company to Cisco (NASDAQ:CSCO) in 2000 for several billion dollars. Among these four very successful partners, start-up capital would not be a problem for the new company, which they dubbed Emotiv. There was no shortage of strategic vision, either. "We wanted to bring to computers and the Internet all the facial expressions and emotions that are so important in our interactions with each other," Le says.
Emotiv's headquarters looks like that of any Web 2.0 start-up, which is to say it is a cluttered warren with mostly twentysomethings hunched over multiple monitors in San Francisco's South of Market neighborhood. But you have to meet only a few of these laptop lizards to realize that something unusual is going on here. One is an expert on facial expressions. Another has designed high-powered communications software. Yet another has produced best-selling video games. Smoke from a soldering iron wafts from a side room teeming with custom circuit boards. The payroll includes mathematicians as well as an evolutionary biologist.
And then there's the charismatic Le, now 31, who is a bit harder to characterize. She is comfortable shooting the breeze about the fine points of intellectual-property protection, the structure of the human cortex, and the future of the music industry, punctuating all of it frequently with an infectious laugh. But there are also flashes of a less easygoing, sharper-edged Le -- flaring, for example, at the suggestion that Emotiv can be compared with any of the countless start-ups that have set up shop nearby. "They may take on some technology risk in their development, but they know what they want to do is doable," she says. "Here, we're pushing the boundaries of what's possible."
Measuring brain waves, of course, isn't such a big deal. Electroencephalography, or EEG, machines that track the brain's electrical activity at the scalp have been around for the better part of a century. But the best EEG machines cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars -- and for all that, they generally haven't been used for much more than measuring relaxation levels or detecting signs of life.
When they launched Emotiv, the partners figured there was no point in hiring established EEG experts, since the state of the art in EEG machines wasn't even close to what they needed. "We decided that we'd look at the whole landscape of science," says Do, "because there had to be something out there traditional researchers were missing." Ultimately, Emotiv decided to treat emotional signal processing as a sort of math problem that could be solved with clever software. Emotiv opened an office in Sydney and staffed it with mathematicians, digital signal processing experts, and artificial intelligence whizzes. To help keep R&D costs manageable, Emotiv leaned heavily on graduate students willing to work for free in exchange for having some exciting, cutting-edge research on their resumé.
The result was a software program that broke brain waves down into 90,000 components. It was so complex that running a single 10-second brain-wave reading through the program took six computers two days. And sometimes the two-day crunching session would be for naught: The brain-wave readings were so faint that just the electrical activity generated in an eye blink was enough to swamp them. To work well, the software had to learn to filter out the noise. "It was like listening to all the phone conversations in New York at once and trying to pull a few of them out," says Snyder. But the researchers made steady progress, and as they did, Le was quick to file patents; she eventually claimed some 25 that covered a range of processes.
In late 2004, after a day of particularly good progress, the group sensed it was close to being able to read a person's level of excitement in real time. No one went home that evening. Le, Do, and the research team pulled an all nighter; they took turns wearing a standard electrode cap -- sort of like a bathing cap coated inside with gel to improve electrical conductivity -- while watching movies, listening to jokes, arguing, and more, all while a graph on the screen tracked excitement. "By morning, we knew we had it," says Le. "We knew we were going to succeed." Without any champagne on hand and with the bars closed, the team members went to a coffee shop to celebrate, their hair glistening with conductive gel.
By now, I can move that block with ease. I'm ready for a new challenge: making something happen onscreen that has no real-life analog. In this case, I'm to make that same damn block vanish into thin air. What am I supposed to think and feel? Disappear isn't part of my mental repertoire. It's suggested that I stare at the background scene and visualize it without the block. I conjure the image in my mind and focus on making it vivid. The block flickers. I sear the blockless image into my brain, and just like that, the block is gone. Who knew I had the ability to concentrate in such deadly ways? Now for some easier fun. An animated face comes up on the screen, and I'm told to make faces. As I grin, the face grins; it matches my frown, blink, wink, and eyebrow arching. I'm a cartoon! I feel as if the headset is helping me realize fantasies I didn't even know I harbored.
Le and her colleagues were just as tickled when they found they could perform similar feats. But they soon realized they now had a serious decision to make, one they had been putting off while the very feasibility of the project was in play: What do we do with this? Hit the market with an expensive device that would sell in low volume? License the technology to one or more big companies? Or somehow figure out how to bring the costs down enough to sell to a mass audience? The co-founders had been dreamily discussing the possibilities all along, but now they met to formally choose their future. "Nam and I were very excited about the opportunities around licensing, but then Allan said to us, 'We don't want to make money doing this,' " recalls Le. "Nam and I rolled our eyes, thinking that this was typical scientist talk. Then Allan added, 'We want to make a lot of money.' " They all laughed, but the point was clear: They had all seen success in past exploits. Why bother to do this if they weren't going to go for the jackpot? They decided to shoot for the mass market.
The strategy is counterintuitive, to say the least. "The best beachhead strategy for a new technology is one that demonstrates that the technology works, is highly valued by the customer, and gives you a high margin," says Jerome Engel, executive director of the Lester Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of California, Berkeley. The transistor, for example, was first brought to market in 1952, when it was used in hearing aids. Customers were grateful rather than finicky, marketing was fairly simple, and the revenue funded expansion into bigger markets. Emotiv, in fact, is working with a wheelchair company to develop a thought-controllable device for those who can't move their body. But that's a sideline. The company's biggest bet remains squarely on consumers -- which Engel finds risky. "If you go for a consumer market first," he says, "you're racing against limited resources, you need to get a lot of partners, and you need to have a very sexy product that delivers exactly what unforgiving customers are looking for. These guys made a choice that carries a huge risk."
The decision to shoot for a mass market immediately led to another: The one market that seemed ripe for a large-scale invasion of innovative interface technology was the video-game industry. "Better and better graphics had reached a point of diminishing returns, while there had been almost no innovation in controllers," Le says. "And gamers tend to be early adopters, making them a good incubator for a new technology." Emotiv opened a new headquarters in San Francisco, placing it close to the heart of the gaming industry, while keeping an R&D team in Sydney.
With a market in mind, Emotiv could now pin down the details of its device. Gamers weren't going to wear a gooey bathing cap, so the team came up with a rigid, relatively unobtrusive, even cool-looking headset able to get an accurate brain-wave reading with 16 gel-free sensors instead of the 128 sticky ones in a standard EEG cap. The headset was augmented with a tiny gyroscope to track head motions and a wireless transmitter to free the wearer of wires. More important, the software's brain-wave-interpreting capabilities were improving by leaps and bounds. The software would eventually be able to differentiate among 30 of what the company characterizes as mental states, roughly divided into three categories -- emotions, facial expressions, and actions. All three types of mental states would be critical: Actions would allow controlling what a character does, facial expressions would convey feelings and intentions to fellow online players, and emotions would allow a game to respond to how a player was feeling. A plot could change when you were bored, a virtual character could appear more often if you found him engaging or threatening, music or lighting could shift to complement your mood.
The technology worked, but it didn't work perfectly for everyone. Some users had more trouble than others sending out consistent, identifiable signals, even after running through a training session. And that, says Le, was a shadow hanging over the future of Emotiv. "If we let something seen as half baked get onto the market, it would be a disaster," she says. "We have an opportunity to revolutionize the way people interact with technology. But we won't get a chance to do that unless we provide the right experience in the beginning."
To make the device easier and more fun to use, Emotiv's team worked furiously with a small video-game-development company called Demiurge Studios in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to embed the technology in a gamelike context. Instead of a boring training session, an Asian sensei walks you through an exotic introduction to your new powers. He gets you to grimace at annoying flying creatures to make them flee, to lift heavy objects, and more. This acclimation process gives the software a chance to record your brain waves and trains you to use them consistently before it throws a series of increasingly difficult challenges at you, such as reconstructing simply via thought a fallen bridge needed for a mystical journey while a fiery sky changes hue in response to your emotional state. Another mini game teaches you to hurl thunderbolts.
The market seemed to break in Emotiv's favor with the success of the Nintendo Wii, which lets users wield game controllers like rackets or steering wheels; the Wii's popularity suggested a real thirst for new sorts of interfaces.
And so, buoyed by early results with test subjects, Emotiv decided to take a chance and unveil a prototype in February 2008, at the closely watched Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. There, new video games and accessories can pick up buzz or sink under the gaming community's disdain.
On the show's opening night, with thousands of attendees and reporters in the audience and video cameras rolling, an Emotiv team member named Zachary Drake attempted to move a cube and more, which by this point was something anyone at Emotiv could do in his or her sleep. But for the first time since the team's big breakthrough, the device, which the team had named the Epoc, simply stopped working. Clearly rattled, Drake gamely tried again and again to work his will on the screen, his face a knot of concentration, his arms reaching out plaintively. For a moment, the crowd was silent. "I think people cringed for us," says Le. Then, the murmuring and snickering began. "Welcome to demo hell, folks," Drake said.
The Emotiv team later learned that a powerful wireless network at the facility had wiped out the connection between the headset and the PC. That the demo might fail had never entered Le's mind, and she just stood there, stunned: "We had done so many dry runs and had never had a problem. I was so shocked. I was speechless." The debacle led to widespread ridicule of the company -- "The Force Is Not Strong With Emotiv's Epoc," "Watch Emotiv's Performance Anxiety," and "The Trade Show and Demo Hall of Shame" were among the headlines on gaming sites.
On the other hand, more than 300 people gave the device a shot at the company's booth, and by almost all accounts, it was a big hit and worked well for virtually everyone who tried it. The company was encouraged enough to set a product launch time frame of the 2008 holiday season. The plan was to sell the headsets through game and electronics retailers, as well as online. Meanwhile, competitors were massing. CyberLearning Technology in San Marcos and OCZ Technology in Sunnyvale, for example, have both developed neural headsets. Hitachi in Japan has poured money into potential mind-reading products, and dozens of universities have made efforts to develop better, cheaper thought processors, any of which could lead to spinoffs. There's even an ambitious project funded by the U.S. military, which hopes to have patrolling soldiers communicating by thought within two decades.
But most notably, there's NeuroSky in San Jose, which has developed a single-electrode game-control headband. NeuroSky's device can detect only two mental states -- attention and meditation. But at a projected $50 or so, it is about one-sixth the price of Emotiv's. And for games, at least, keeping it simple could turn out to be an advantage. "People can use ours right away without training," says Greg Hyver, NeuroSky's vice president of marketing. "You can add on all the features you want to a headset, but if people can't use it right out of the box, they won't use it at all." At a conference in October, Square Enix demonstrated a zombie game that uses the NeuroSky device, and Sega is considering releasing a toy sword or a game based on the technology.
Meanwhile, a company called EmSense is making inroads into the corporate market with a headset that measures the reactions of consumers to games, ads, and other entertainment and marketing creations. EmSense hopes to provide its clients with a detailed, high-tech analysis of what flies with what types of consumers.used EmSense last year to help fine-tune its Super Bowl advertising decisions. That's a business Emotiv wants to be in on as it moves beyond gaming, and no wonder. Says EmSense CEO Keith Winter: "The market research business is worth billions. It's an ocean. Gaming is a pond."
Le and her teammates have tried these rival systems and remain confident they don't come close to the Epoc's capabilities. Still, Emotiv decided in September to postpone the rollout. Why? Because it can, Le says. She insists Emotiv's technology edge is insurmountable. She also says funding isn't a problem, at least in the near term; the company raised $13.4 million in a round of financing in 2007 -- the Australian government chipped in, along with three venture capital firms. "Trying to make the Christmas time frame just wasn't necessary," she says. "We don't have to risk the whole business trying to meet an early delivery date." Le even suggests that delaying the product could prove to be a smart marketing move. "We want pent-up demand," she says. "We've already got 5,000 preordered through our website. After we deliver a good experience to those early customers, we can talk about making tons of them for next Christmas." The company hasn't announced a new launch date, but Le says the headset will be out in 2009.
Meanwhile, the team continues to think beyond games. The headset already can be used to control most ordinary functions in common software, such as word processing and spreadsheet programs, by taking the place of a mouse -- the cursor simply follows your gaze, and you can think your way into triggering the equivalent of a left or right mouse click. Not only might that be a critical tool for people who may have trouble working a mouse, but it might end up feeling a lot more natural for the rest of us. The technology could be applied to entertainment, Le says, noting that wearing a headset while listening to music or watching a video would allow your computer to track what you like and dislike down to individual choruses or scenes, and start automatically tailoring what it serves you, perhaps via a website -- a sort of brain-powered iTunes that Le hints she would like to see Emotiv own. The headset could help educators who work with children who have autism or attention deficit disorder. Social networking sites could use emotional feedback from the headset to create compatible online gatherings or even assist in matchmaking. Well, maybe. "Love is tricky to identify in brain signals," Le allows. "I'm not sure we know how to tell it apart from lust."
Some powerful partners have come on board. IBM (NYSE:IBM) is working with Emotiv to develop a corporate version of the headset that would allow, for example, virtual conferencing with avatars that represent people's expressions and feelings -- so you would know who was engaged, who was bored, who was laughing at your jokes, and, maybe, who was pretending to laugh. Ketan Paranjape, chief of technical staff at Intel, says the chip giant is interested in enlisting Emotiv's headset to navigate via thought three-dimensional representations of corporate data -- the company featured Emotiv prominently at its annual conference for developers. "We think neural devices will be the next interface," he says.
And that brings us, hypothetically, to the day when we are all wearing Emotiv hair plugs, our thoughts and feelings productively ricocheting through our homes, offices, and, through the Internet, the whole world. That's Le's vision, anyway, and she is almost dismissive of lesser goals. "We don't want to be some niche company providing a specific solution to a specific problem," she says. "We have an opportunity to create an industry that will revolutionize the whole framework of technology."
That may well happen. But first, she has to give the world a chance to move that block mentally, before someone beats her to it.
Contributing editor David H. Freedman is a Boston-based freelance writer.