Neural Interfaces

Neural interfaces tend to draw attention whenever they make the news cycle. The idea of “mind reading” devices sets off powerful possibilities in our imaginations and calls to mind all manner of science fiction narratives. But a neural interface (also called a brain-computer interface, or BCI) is simply a way to connect the human nervous system to the outside world in some way. The science involves creating some sort of communication pathway that measures our brain activity and sends it to a computer that attempts to interpret those signals.

Ambition to Reality

The term BCI refers to a wide range of technologies and capabilities. On the more ambitious end of the spectrum is Elon Musk’s Neuralink, a brain implant that recently made news when the device was inserted into a monkey’s skull so it could play video games with its mind. Before that, it was a pig named Gertrude whose implant measured sensory input from her snout. Musk has ambitious goals (as always), but he’s tempered them from merging humans with AI to the more modest desire of solving “important spine and brain problems with a seamlessly implanted device.” The more invasive BCI research happening in labs is designed to help people with paralysis control prosthetic limbs, and is still fairly experimental.

For now, most research involves non-invasive neural interfaces, since not many people are lining up for elective brain surgery. This includes everything from CalTech’s research with functional ultrasound (fUS) technology to the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in psychiatric research or even social bias testing. But these devices are bulky and expensive, so we’re not likely to see them in the hands of consumers any time soon.

Electroencephalogram (EEG) devices, on the other hand, are some of the most popular consumer BCI gadgets, and they can be used in lots of interesting ways. While they have lower temporal resolution (meaning the data isn’t always as accurate), that may be for the best since we like to keep our thoughts to ourselves in most cases.

Consumer BCIs

EEG devices are at the least invasive end of the spectrum when it comes to neural interfaces. Medical-grade EEGs require the use of specifically-placed electrodes (and often conductive jelly). That makes them more reliable, but also more messy and less suited to personal use. But so-called “dry” EEG devices are readily available and have been getting some attention. In fact, if you’re a self-measurement aficionado you can buy EEG headbands for around $100. In some ways, using BCIs for meditation and concentration tasks isn’t that different from wearing a smartwatch or a fitness band or a sleep tracker.

Emotiv, for example, offers a range of neuroheadset devices that use anywhere from 5 to 32 sensors to tune into your brain’s signals and deliver them to a PC or Mac. Emotiv headsets can monitor your emotions as you move through a virtual environment, measure your emotional state (such as stress levels), and even allow you to manipulate virtual objects with your mind.

If it’s telekinesis you’re interested in, the Neurosky’s Mindflex will let you move a ball around a maze with a headset that presses a metal forehead sensor above your left eyebrow. Neurosky also sells a “brainwave starter kit” that allows you to interface with different apps. You can do everything from playing “brain-training” games on your phone to influencing the plot of specially-made movies using the MyndPlay app. There are also more serious uses, such as monitoring and managing chronic pain with biofeedback using the oddly-named PainPal app.

Neurable launched a few years ago in the VR gaming space and has been working for years on bringing an ‘everyday’ brain-computer interface to market. Following their series A funding, they now are developing their tech into specialized headphones that would provide neural input while delivering audio. That’s an exciting approach, but their headphones have yet to reach the market.

Another device from the VR gaming world, the NextMind headset connects you to your PC and provides neural input using both brain signals and eye-tracking. Geared towards developers, their headset comes with a very capable dev kit that can be used to create VR games and other software that react to neural input. While relatively new to the market, NextMind seems to offer a lot of promise for those looking to explore the use of BCIs as an input device.

BCIs in Action

Home neurofeedback devices have yet to become ubiquitous, but we’re starting to see this technology in use in industries we might not expect. Redbull racing has developed an EEG-integrated race helmet to measure the brainwaves of their race car drivers, for example. The goal is to use brainwave data to maximize driving performance. We’re data-obsessed, after all, so neural interfaces are perhaps just the next step, especially for high-stakes situations like racing. But given consumers’ continued interest in the quantified self, it’s not hard to imagine this type of tracking filtering down to the mainstream.

There are more sophisticated uses of EEG-based brain-computer interface devices for research as well, even if the technology needs some tweaking to get a real “read” on people’s brains. The potential for connecting EEG BCIs to artificial intelligence has been explored, and the most recent news from this arena comes out of Helsinki. Researchers there had an AI system show participants photos of people’s faces, collect their brainwave data, interpret it as reactions to whether or not they found those faces beautiful, and then attempted to create the perfect face for that person based on their biofeedback.

There has clearly been renewed interest in neural interfaces recently. Elon Musk, as always made splashy headlines with his experimentation, and he has a sizable audience for such pronouncements. Facebook has been less aggressive with their PR, but they have also turned some heads with their stated plans to use BCIs for the ultimate AR/VR experience. Whether or not big tech ends up bringing this technology to the mass market, they’ve already succeeded in raising awareness of the possibilities with the public.

Food for Thought

In the near term, there may be an opportunity here for marketers. The capabilities of non-invasive devices have some exciting potential for innovative and creative uses. And as more people become curious about the technology from hearing about it in the news, they are increasingly primed to be interested in opportunities for dabbling in various BCIs. Smart experiential marketers could meet this demand by creating compelling new interactive and immersive experiences.

Such activations don’t need to “read our minds” on some nefarious level. They just need to take advantage of the creative way in which neurofeedback can be translated into experience and into artistic expression. Marketers have previously used various types of biometric measurements in interesting ways. Pulse, eye, and breath tracking were all used in Delta’s “Stillness in Motion” relaxation game, created to promote their in-flight amenities. Pepsi’s Lightwave event used wearables to track body temperature and motion levels to guide DJs in making the most engaging playlist. Using BCI devices for user input is a substantially similar use of wearable tech.

Acura’s “Moodroads” activation is a good example of using neural interfaces, specifically (and quite non-invasively) to create a pleasurable and personalized experience without risking anything too revealing. The experience used biometric sensors to measure heart-rate and other metrics, but it also included a brainwave-interpreting headset to create a customized VR driving experience.

Leveraging technologies such as computer vision and AR/VR along with neural interfaces is full of possibilities for brand activations. All that’s left is to explore new ways to use them to maximize consumer engagement and to generate moments of joy.

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