Neurosky: Mind-Reading Headsets

This interview originally appeared in


Attention. Meditation. Two default human settings.
You pay attention when you’re driving. You’re in a state of meditation when you watch the ocean, or perhaps a good movie. You may even meditate on purpose, sitting a pillow with closed eyes.

Silicon Valley innovator NeuroSky has given new meaning to these two states of mind
. Attention means you can move things back and forth. Meditation means you can levitate objects.

Sound outlandish, like a lucid dream, or a hallucinogenic flashback? Actually, all it takes is a headset. NeuroSky, using a consumer-friendly EEG device, is taking Virtual Reality one step closer to just plain Real.

NeuroSky has created a wearable biosensor allowing users to control electronic devices with their minds. A red wire feeds brainwaves into a patented device that turns them into commands. The device uses a series of emotion-based algorithms to allow users to push and pull objects (virtual or external) based on an attention or meditation rating. For example, users can levitate virtual objects with a strong meditation rating, or push/pull objects with a strong attention rating.

Their technology allows users to control just about any mechanical system. They plan to expand into brainwave-read robots for the elderly and disabled in the future, as well as diversify their command suite to include more emotions and subtle movements such as eye blinks.


Business Pundit interviewed Greg Hyver, VP of Marketing at San Jose brainwave device manufacturer, to find out more about NeuroSky’s fascinating EEG device.

DK: According to the website, NeuroSky’s goal is to “take medical sensor technology out of the hospitals, institutes and universities and put it into the hands of the average consumer in order to enhance lifestyles.” Can you talk about some progress you’ve made in that field recently?

Sure. The first challenge was actually non-technical in nature. We had to identify the conditions in which an “average” consumer would actually purchase a device that reads and translates their brainwaves to perform a function.

NeuroSky identified five major categories that we had to address to establish our products’ design parameters:

(a) price
(b) wearability
(c) ease-of-use
(d) mobility
(e) utility

It all came down to building a dry (no electrode gel), single-EEG-sensor solution that met each of our markets’ technical and costing requirements.

The medical industry already uses multiple sensor headsets and it didn’t seem to make much sense for us to produce another “medical-like” headset. You may lose a few features with a single sensor versus multiple sensors, but it’s much more intuitive for a consumer who has never used this type of technology to understand and control it more quickly and consistently.

We didn’t want to frustrate the consumer by producing a multiple sensor headset that created head placement problems, lengthy calibration periods, special training sessions, non-repeatable performances and high-end (and expensive) hardware requirements that limited a platform’s (mobility) ability to support it.

By making it simple, we created a fully-embedded headset where all of the processing (reading-filtering-amplifying EEG, translating the mental states) is done on the headset, itself, without requiring a remote processing device. Since we don’t steal processor bandwidth from the remote device (for example, a simple toy product), our technology can effectively communicate with any product that can read our data stream.

DK: Who do you see as your biggest markets, considering the numerous possible applications of your technology?

Our early markets, what we consider the low-hanging fruit, are in toys, video games and interactive music (music controlled by mood). These are clearly entertainment-related applications where users can experience brainwave control in a casual and fun environment. This is where some of the earliest end-products from our customers should begin hitting the mass market shelves, probably in late 2008.

More advanced markets that we consider fairly massive would be the simple wellness market, especially for the baby boomer population (e.g. brain training, stress reduction, meditation), the education market (e.g. methods to improve learning in children), the cognitive disorder therapies market (e.g. ADD-ADHD, addiction, phobias, anxiety, PTSD, etc.) and the transportation market (e.g. sleep detection devices).

These more advanced markets require more sophisticated applications to be built and tested which produces longer time-to-market for these products.

DK: Why the licensing model? If the unit is relatively inexpensive, why not just sell directly to consumers?

I’ve always liked this question because it pinpoints why I believe we will be so successful with our products.

NeuroSky is a core technology provider. We license our MindKit-EM™ SDK to the developer community to enable them to easily integrate our technology into the applications they develop.

Once they are ready to enter the mass market, we give them two options:

(a) they may purchase our ThinkGear-EM™ modules and go off to design and build their own headset customized to their own market requirements
(b) they may purchase our off-the-shelf MindSet™ commercial headsets, place their logo on it, and bundle it with their application.

Our clients then distribute and promote their products through their established channels. NeuroSky simply does not have, nor do we prefer to build, the infrastructure to reach the end-retail market, so we back-door through our OEM partners’ channels.

DK: Was your technology developed in association with any major research institutions, such as universities?

Yes, there were three universities professors involved in developing our technology. They were at the University of Korea (Seoul), the Moscow University (Russia) and the Virginia Polytechnic Institute (U.S.).

DK: Is there a way of confusing your device? Generating emotional uncertainty, for example?

EEG systems are prone to noise issues, whether on-head noise or ambient noise, creating disturbances requiring noise filtering to obtain the EEG signals. Brainwaves are very small electrical signals in the micro-volt range and certain types of noise may interfere with proper interpretation.

The challenge for all EEG systems is to reduce the impact of noise during the filtering operation. Noise filtering continues to be an important technical priority in this industry. NeuroSky’s technology is not deemed “medical grade”, as we focus on consumer and not medical applications.

DK: Do you have any additional cool anecdotes about the device? For example, an amazing function it’s been used for, or a video-game trick someone accomplished?

Our current, single sensor technology reads and translates brainwaves on, in medical terms, the Fp1 or Fp2 locations on the forehead. There is a wealth of mental state information that can be retrieved from the forehead location, for example, a user’s attention, meditation, drowsiness, anxiety, pleasure or displeasure. Today, we have already tested and released two important mental state values: Attention & Meditation.

This continually updated mental state information is sent from the headset to an application, say a video game. The developer of that video game then decides how he or she wishes to map the attention or meditation states.

In our technical “NeuroBoy World Demo” that we allow users to experience at our trade shows, and is included as part of our SDK license, our own developers have decided to map these states to certain telekinesis modes of operation. They still require the user to manually set the mode and select the object via a keyboard command, but once set, a certain mental state is mapped to operate on that mode (we view our technology as an additional complement, and not an end-all, to the current gaming experience).

For example, if the user manually sets the “lift” mode and selects an object in the room, this mode corresponds to the user’s “meditation” level at the time. By relaxing and emptying his or her mind, the meditation level grows higher and eventually the object can be raised up.

Another powerful way of using these mental states is for the application to simply monitor the user’s mental state. Say, for example, you are listening to someone speak. Are you paying attention? Someone could ultimately develop an audio application that measures a person’s attention level during a played speech and identify the level of “listening performance,” then make suggestions for improvement with the mental state feedback providing the benchmark for performance measurement.

The same can be applied to market research applications using EEG to rate a user’s response to an advertisement or television show during a focus group session in order to make determinations about the effectiveness of a particular media piece.

The end-use of this technology is not being driven by NeuroSky, but by the imaginations of the customers that we encounter every day. And, I must say, there have been some very creative ideas that will find their way onto retail shelves in a relatively short period.

Greg Hyver is the Vice President of Marketing at NeuroSky.

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