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Using our brains: Neuromarketing, no-hands gaming and the arrival of the EEG headset


May 23, 2011

EEG brainwave headsets have potential applications ranging from medicine to gaming and market research

EEG brainwave headsets have potential applications ranging from medicine to gaming and market research

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Until recently a purely lab based technology, brainwave (electroencephalograph or EEG) headsets are trickling into the marketplace in a number of different guises. But what exactly do these devices do, how do they differ from each other and - with potential applications ranging from medicine to gaming and market research - who will use them and for what purpose?

There are at least four areas of applications for brainwave detection devices:

  • Medical/clinical applications
  • Assistive technology for people with disability i.e. to control, for example, a wheelchair or a mouse
  • Hands-free gaming
  • Market research - evaluating new ads or packaging by reading consumer brainwaves

Let's start with one of the latest headsets to be unveiled - the Mynd. Announced late March 2011, it is described as "the World's First Wireless Full-Brain EEG Headset". That description sounds impressive but who is it for?

The Mynd headset is primarily for market research. You can't buy one at this stage because it is the product of Neurofocus, a Nielsen backed market research company that uses Mynd to provide ad and pack testing services for advertisers. Neurofocus may decide to sell the headsets later but for the moment, the company is satisfied to claim a competitive advantage for its market research testing services.

The Mynd is wireless, uses dry, "smart" electrodes (thus eliminating the use of gels) and is claimed to provide full-brain coverage using "a dense-array" of EEG sensors, each one capturing brainwave activity at 2,000 times a second.

Number of sensors

One of the key differentiating factors in brainwave headsets is the number of electrodes or sensors. The typical, medical EEG uses 19 electrodes, that is, 19 channels of information being read from the scalp. In some cases, very high densities of 250 or more are employed. More sensors means greater brainwave information and more "thought resolution" can be achieved. This is important as we will see later as some headsets use a very limited number of electrodes. Headsets that use just one or two electrodes for example, cannot be expected to give the "thought resolution" that 19 sensors can provide.

Dry v Wet technology

Measurement of EEG brainwaves has traditionally had to use gel, paste or saline at the scalp terminals to ensure conductivity of the electrodes onto the scalp. The Mynd headset relies instead on natural skin-oils and sweat to create a sufficient connection and the company claims similar performance to that obtained by wet-based systems.

With dry technology and a Bluetooth enabled headset, Neurofocus boasts the convenience of its EEG testing for market research environments beyond the lab. That is, it can be used in consumers' homes, at movie theaters, in shopping malls as well as at outdoor venues. It enables consumer EEG data to be streamed via Bluetooth to any portable smart device, such as an iPad or iPhone.

Neuromarketing tests - are they valid?

EEG is only one form of what is called "neuromarketing" evaluation testing ... but an important one. This type of testing has been attracting growing interest but it also has its critics who see it as junk science and suspect market research. Indeed, whether such studies produce valid, reliable, market research results is a question that is currently being addressed by a well-respected, independent body, the Advertising Research Foundation (ARF). Last year, the ARF gathered a number of TV commercials and asked the various neuromarketing suppliers, like Neurofocus, to apply their technology to testing the same commercials. The ARF was then able to compare the conclusions and recommendations produced by the tests from the individual corporations.

Notably, Neurofocus was one of two key suppliers that declined to take part in this independent review process. Notable also is the fact that the other major company that declined to take part also uses dry headset technology. This is the Emband, a product of Emsense (a company partnered by the global market research giant, Millward Brown). Neither the Mynd or the Emband headset is available to buy at this stage, and you can draw your own conclusions as to why these two companies declined to take part. But since the dry technology players were missing, one has to conclude that dry technology is as yet unproven in the market research space.

If you are interested in what the ARF found, you can watch the presentation of its first-phase findings from March 2011 here. There is little detail except for one commercial tested - the Colgate Total toothpaste commercial. Most of the neuromarketing suppliers agreed the ad was good, but the detailed findings between the companies were disturbingly different. "Across eight vendors, there was not a whole lot of consistency," according to Colgate's director of strategic insights. Some companies, for example, said the characters in the ad were "inviting" while others thought the same characters did not resonate with the target audience. The ARF is expected to release a more extensive "white-paper" on this study around September 2011. But for now the review offers a very conservative position that neuromarketing testing has promise but is, at this stage, a supplement and not a replacement for more traditional market research.

Beyond neuromarketing

EEG headsets for other uses, especially gaming, represent a somewhat less complex problem than market research testing. The emphasis here is on mapping a thought to an action. So for example, gross motor thoughts like imagining you are "pushing a ball away from you" can be mapped to moving a game character forwards, or a facial expression like raising your eyebrows can be mapped to firing a gun in the game. For this sort of purpose, there are a couple of dry technology headsets emerging that are quite cheap and seem to work OK for rather limited gaming application.

Neurosky's technology is making its way onto the market in products like the Star Wars Force Trainer and its US$100 headset called MindWave is aimed at gaming and simple video applications. It is a mass market version of the company's Bluetooth enabled, $200 MindSet. This headset has only one electrode (reading from the forehead where the signal is easier to detect because there is no hair). This single electrode is mainly designed to detect how attentive versus how "meditatively" relaxed the user is feeling as they interact with games, video and learning applications. As mentioned earlier, one electrode cannot give the "thought resolution" of 19 sensors so gaming applications like this have their limitations.

The Neural Impulse Actuator is another dry headset marketed primarily as a game controller and again uses very limited channels (it is not clear how many channels but it looks like 2 or 3). The sensors seems to be focused heavily on detecting facial movements as much as brainwaves. OCZ Technology sells the Neural Impulse Actuator for around US$100 but clearly, even for gaming, it is early days in the state of development for dry technology headsets.

The alternative to dry

If you want a serious headset with adequate electrode channels to provide for a broader range of applications, what alternatives are there?

The least invasive and most convenient alternative to dry technology is to use terminals with pre-moistened saline pads. After extended use, the sensors require re-hydration with new saline fluid but the technology is nevertheless, low cost and very usable.

An attractive and comparatively low-cost offering here is the EPOC headset by Emotiv that was demonstrated at TED in August 2010. It has 14 sensors plus an inbuilt two-axis gyroscope that also allows tracking of head movements.

If you only want it for approved games or applications designed specifically for the EPOC, the headset costs US$299. If you are a developer and want to use it more fully, the cost is $500 for the Developer headset.

The Developer version comes with a Brain Computer Interface (BCI) that while fairly simple, is nevertheless an order of magnitude cheaper than anything else comparable. On the basis of the 14 channel input, the EPOC BCI is easily able to translate brain activity to enable it to be mapped onto a wide variety of computer commands. For people with disability, I think Emotiv's corporate tagline says it brilliantly: "you think, therefore, you can."

This EPOC headset is currently being piloted for various gaming applications and disability enablement applications around the world. If a person cannot speak or cannot speak clearly, as is the case with many cerebral palsy sufferers, speech recognition technology to control smart devices is just not an option. Various organizations (like Thought-Wired for example) are exploring the potential of low cost headsets like this to enhance the lives of those suffering from a profound disability.

As well as attracting the attention of disabled gamers, by linking the headset and a BCI to smart-home appliances it can enable people to do things like control room lights, curtains, room temperature or alert carers to their needs. Eye tracking technology can do the same thing, but this turns out to be cheaper.

Emotive seems to be winning considerable respect for its Epoc headset as its claims have been cited by no less than the highly respected British Royal Society.

The EPOC headset can also detect a variety of facial expressions including smiling, laughing, and smirking as well as eyelid and eyebrow positions. This enables a user's facial expressions to be communicated in online communication through an avatar or converted into email in the form of emoticons.

What does the future hold?

EEG headsets have broken out of the laboratory into the wild and while their numbers are still sparse, they can be expected to develop rapidly.

In the next few years we can expect some exciting applications to emerge, particularly in disability applications. In relation to gaming, they seem to be a solution looking for a problem at the moment, but they undeniably have novelty appeal. So the jury is still out. as it is in the market research arena where it will take some time to sort out the substance from the hype - as applies to neuromarketing more generally.


FPS gaming would be really taken one step further with a functioning device like this. Sticking wet electrodes to my forehead doesn\'t sound too appealing, though. ^^

Renārs Grebežs

I really like this for the disability aspects of it. I have a close friend who has cerebral palsy and on top of that his vertebrae are all fused making his mobility very limited. He is completely wheelchair bound and even has difficulty eating because his hands are so bound up by the palsy. He has a marvelous mind however. And he wants to work but has not been able to get any jobs he really enjoys because of people not expecting him to perform as well as someone without his disabilities. The jobs he has done he has done very well.(he does office work as he can use a computer pretty well. And to give him robotic arms would open so many possibilities for him. I even wonder if this technology will soon enable him to use a \'cyborg\'-like exoskeleton to walk and work with some semblance of normality.

On the gaming side; As a gamer, I don\'t know if I would like not using my hands. And the idea of controlling the game with my face is just retarded...seriously. However, a synergistic system, using a handheld controller with action-focused buttons and a headset for selecting and setting extra options on-the-fly would be brilliant! (as long as it uses brain waves and not facial movement!) For example; In the first \'Fable\' game for XBOX, there are hundreds of items and in-game selectables. Requiring the player to often pause the game and sift through pages and pages of items and/or options and then return to gameplay. Imagine being able to switch weapons without having to push a button on the controller. Or to interact with items/doors/etc without needing to have a dedicated \"interact\" button taking up space. Hand held controllers could be simpler and more effective. And the game would be able to have more control features because an entire keyboard could be reduced to just one or two basic physical controllers. Making consoles able to have the options preciously only available to PCs. I can see the value of adding thought to a controller/mouse but I don\'t see any true viability for sitting there and not sing my hands.

However, for those people like my friend, who cannot play many games because of their disability, I\'m sure THEY would love the option to control games via mind control.

Two things though: 1: Make one that looks like a hat or helmet...the wires are just creepy. 2: I agree with the post above, wet electrodes need to be replaced with dry if possible.


Next step: EEG controlled Wii = AWESOMENESS And it will also work both ways: you can use EEG controlled games to keep you trained for other applications, like a wheel chair, a fighter jet or a mech suit (YEAHHH!!).

Nacho Lotitto

It\'s nice to see this technology is starting to flourish in the consumer market. Once our home appliances, and consumer electronics devices are enabled with this technology, everyone with a headset will be controlling these things hands-free. In the future, there will probably be a miniature wireless EEG on-a-chip that they can easily implant into the skull, and we will all become Cyborgs at that point.

The PLX Devices EEG Headset and XWave app are some other pretty cool tools for reading and training your brain waves. They also have another interesting app called Tug of Mind.


Did someone memo Stephen Hawking about this?

Juan Juliao

YES! one step closer to the Matrix!

Gabriel Grove

Gaming, awesome. Helping the disabled, super awesome. Neuromarketing, should absolutely be made illegal! The masses will be controlled with greater force when this market research is finished. Advertisers will know exactly what to do to get virtually anyone to buy / do anything!


This is just further progress towards the government\'s capability to record and control everything we do and think disguised as entertainment. There can be no doubt.


How long before \"They\" can read our minds at a distance? Walk into t a car dealership for example and the salesman would be able to tell just how much you are interested and willing to pay. We already have laws fro \"Hate\" crimes they can then be extended to \"thought\" Crimes. Soon we will all need to wear tinfoil hats for any type privacy.


They should give one of these to Stephen Hawking. He gets lots of publicity when he gives \"speeches\" using his computer. If this gizmo enabled him to talk better, and to do math better, it would be great publicity for the company.


First off, Hawking is doing just fine without one of these - he doesn\'t have to be the poster model for every new possible technology that might possibly aide people like him. I think the tech is cool, but maybe we should be starting with some of our war vets, or people with less advanced illness than Hawking.

Okay, so that aside, I have one of the \"wet mount\" EEG Headsets, and, while it\'s interesting enough, it also doesn\'t work so well as advertising would lead you to believe (this for someone who got EEG\'s as a guinea pig in college and has been told that EEG\'s usually work very well for me). While using contact lens solution feels better than the goo I had gotten before (which frankly wasn\'t terrible, but took some time and tuning) I agree that a dry system would be much more comfortable and practical. Really though, the big lack is in software - with no standards and a limited developer field, there is not a lot that the fancy system can do besides move a box around on the screen or try and figure out my facial movements. Also, the system seems not to have a very sophisticated learning program - the system I have used has a learning module that seems comparable with a speech recognition program that only offers a single sentence and then only has about 60% accuracy.

These headsets have a lot of potential (I would love to be able to surf the net on one computer while typing on my laptop on the other) but they also have a long way to go before anyone but the most desperate and determined make more than occasional use of them.

Charles Bosse

Looks good, how long untill all devices are interlinked and a domestic central alpha wave receivers linking us to our homes?

Michael Simpson
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