March 26, 2014
Q&A with Tan Le, founder and CEO, Emotiv Lifesciences
In the decade since Tan Le founded Emotiv Lifesciences, the company has become one of the leading players in the emerging market of low-cost electroencephalography (EEG) devices. One of these, the EPOC, is the brain wave-reading headset of choice for various developers of brain-controlled computer games and other applications. Emotiv recently raised $1.6 million on Kickstarter for its next neuroheadset, the stylish Insight, which is geared toward the consumer market and set to launch later this year. We chatted with Le while researching Telepathic Technology, one of our 10 Trends for 2014, discussing what the technology is actually capable of, the future of brain-scanning and the potential here for marketers.
What has happened recently that is changing the potential market for brain-scanning technology?
The biometrics space has been steadily growing. There have been devices that have come to the market over the last few years. The Emotiv EPOC is a product I was instrumental in inventing and pioneering. Our goal is to take the clinic into the real world, taking brain research you would normally do in a clinical setting or in a research lab and making it possible to take that out into a real-life, contextual setting and still be able to collect high-resolution, multichannel EEG signals from many critical parts of the brain.
The other part of the market is products from companies like NeuroSky, which is a one-channel EEG that is really whimsical and fun and a great toy. But it’s focused on a different end of the market spectrum, which is not research or high-quality detection of mental states. They are about, “What can we do from single-channel EEG that’s really easy for consumers to use that may not be very robust from a signal quality and information standpoint?”
Obviously, EEG is an underlying technology that’s existed since the 1930s. It’s not something we invented. And so we just made it more affordable, made it a lot more easy to use and taken a lot of the problems out of conventional EEG.
What we’re seeing now, and what we’ll see in the next 12 to 18 months, is a new landscape around wearables. It’s basically wearable technology for your brain, or as we coin it, Brainwear. So we’re moving it toward not only measuring the brain, moving it into a real-life context, but also making it a very fashion-centric product that people won’t mind wearing for longer durations of time, as well as to chart different types of activities you might do. Within this segment, there’s [also] the Muse, an InteraXon product; it principally has channels that cover the forehead. Melon is another product which also covers the forehead.
What are a few of the things people will use these technologies for?
Every company will have its own strategy. A lot of it will be heavily dependent on the nature of the signals we can derive from the EEGs. If you’re talking about products like the Emotiv Insight, the kinds of things you can track are performance metrics, data that give you insight into your cognitive performance and well-being. This can be anything from attention, interest, engagement, stress andrelaxation levels. You’ll see products emerge around those categories.
The idea with Insight is to move into a more comprehensive, holistic understanding of your well-being. So it’s not just physical health, it’s also cognitive and mental well-being. And being able to track what’s your productivity profile for today, how well are you working, what are you doing for play, what are you doing for learning? How are you doing with stress and relaxation? Are you doing enough of that to allow the system to recharge? The other thing is the entire space around sleep.
A classic problem with science today is that we don’t study the brain until there’s something wrong with it. For example, epilepsy, autism, traumatic brain injury—there’s no baseline for a healthy person to be able to gain any sort of metric around their brain, to see what differences were caused if they suffer an injury or illness. Consumers will be empowered to have a much better understanding of and knowledge about their brain, about how the brain is changing, and that’s going to give them much better information about how to optimize their brain fitness in general.
What we’re trying to do is get to a point where we can democratize the space around brain research. The biggest challenge with any sort of industry, if you want to see revolution and a really big uptick in understanding, is you have to decentralize the controls. What we’re trying to do with this space is improve the underlying technology, make it more accessible, make it more affordable and open it up so more people can have access to it in the hopes that we will empower individuals to understand their own brain and accelerate brain research globally.
And then on the commercial end, I see some exciting potential around health-sciences-type applications, as well as applications like being able to track how people are responding to ads, or neuromarketing—being able to track not only what people are looking at, what they’re interested in, but to actually look at the brain’s response in real time.
So marketers will be able to get much more information about how consumers are responding to a product or certain sensations or stimuli?
That’s certainly a very big area, and it’s growing quite strong at the moment from what we’ve observed, particularly with the EPOC. That product has made some good inroads. We work with all the major eye-tracking companies. Eye-trackers have been very popular in this segment, but you don’t really know what the person’s actual experience is—just because I’m fixating on a point right now doesn’t mean I’m actually interested and engaged at that point. My brain could be somewhere else, or I could just be appalled at what I’m staring at. That’s the challenge with just looking at eye-tracking.
The benefit of being able to add the brain’s response is that you’ve got a much better sense of what is causing this interest. Is it an auditory response you’re responding to? Is it a sound? Is it the visual cues? Was it someone that walked in? Are they recognizing the brand? All these metrics are things we should pick up from the brain’s response. It creates a very new opportunity. With this new type of technology, you could walk through a shopping center, you could walk through a store, you could be sitting inside a movie theater, you could be watching a television ad in a lounge room. You don’t have to ask any questions at all, and you have a lot of answers. You have a lot of data that’s highly correlated with exactly what you’re interested in. It opens up a whole new spectrum of opportunities.
Do you think consumers might be creeped out by that capability a little bit?
It’s not going to be a consumer type of application. These devices are going to be used in very much the same way as what you’re seeing now with market research. The only difference is it’s not going to be done by inviting 50 people to sit down and watch a video together and let’s chitchat about it. It will be showing it to them while they’re wearing some biometric devices and seeing what the response is. It’s giving you metrics that you otherwise wouldn’t have access to.
Will the smartphone play a big role in collecting this kind of data?
Absolutely. All these wearables are leveraging the mobile phone as a platform. With the Insight, you ought to be able to collect the data, have a mobile app and then also have a lot of metrics you can store on it. So if in 10 years time you want to look at how your brain changed longitudinally, you can see that. And the interesting thing about the brain, which is different from other metrics you might chart, such as your heart rate, is it changes in response to your activities every day. Whatever you do will change your brain.
The idea of “How does your brain change over time?” is something we’ve never been able to see and get an insight into. The consumers of the future will have access to information we lack today. As we look toward the next decade, we’re going to get much better metrics about how we’re using our brain, how it’s changing, and then have a much better baseline in case something goes wrong.
In the near future, how do you think this will play out in terms of the addressable market for this technology and how it will become a part of society?
It’s going to take a lot of iterations of the technology before it’s going to get to the mass market. We’re waiting on other technologies to catch up.
It will be part of everyday life. It will be part of the Internet of Things. You’ll be getting biometrics from your device that will inform you about your changes, your health, your wellness, but at the same time that device will be your portal into better selections of movies, information, content that’s relevant to you, that learns from your previous experiences and preferences. As well as indexing your past experiences with searchable mental performance and emotional markers, it will be able to guide and predict ways to improve performance, to get a richer experience in the future. It’ll be able to interact with your environment. There will be a whole slew of things that will be fully integrated with these next-generation devices.
It will happen with the next version of Insight. This industry will get there. There’s a ton of potential in it. The growth has been strong, but it’s going to get to a point where it will accelerate, and it will be interesting to see who the players will be at that time. We certainly expect to be around as a major player.
Are there any potential downsides one needs to be mindful of in the development of this technology?
There are always things you need to be mindful of. One of my biggest concerns is people’s understanding of the technology itself and what it’s capable of. Technology is supposed to be an enabler, but if you don’t understand it and if you assume it has more power than it has, or you misinterpret the value of what it’s giving you, it can be used in the wrong way. If it’s used as a way to screen people, in a way that affects people’s capacity to receive health care or insurance or any of those things, then it’s used in the wrong way.
And there’s a very big risk associated with how the data is interpreted, and people need to understand there are limits to those underlying technologies. That’s really the only concern I have.