Mind reading headphones?

For my first blog post, I thought that I’d talk about something weird. That something weird is Neurowear, a Japanese project team focused on creating products that react to biological signals, namely brainwaves. Their first product, which gained a substantial amount of interest floating around the internet, was a pair of wearable cat ears that were supposed to adjust their shape to the owner’s mood. When I think of neurobiology, for better or worse, my thoughts always go to wacky products like this. There are lots of really interesting research out there on really important topics, but sometimes it’s more fun to think about wiggling cat ears with your mind. In fact, I was going to make this whole post about said cat ears until I discovered that a previous student in this class already posted about them. Instead, I’ll focus on one of the newer products by Neurowear: Mico.

The future is now. Or something.

Mico is a combination of headphones, forehead EEG and iphone app loaded with songs. The idea behind the product is to create “music serendipity,” where songs will come on that perfectly fit your mood by “detecting your subconscious through your brain waves.” The name ‘Mico’ is also apparently short for ‘music inspiration from your subconscious,’ although I’ve been scratching my head over the nature of the abbreviation gymnastics they must have used to create that acronym. Mico starts with a 100 song library and works via an algorithm that analyzes the brain waves of multiple listeners in response to a certain song and “neuro-tags” that song with a set of EEG pattern characteristics. When a new listener puts on the device, the algorithm matches their EEG waves with the previously neuro-tagged songs and picks the best fit when deciding which song to play.

Unfortunately, it seems like Mico can only sense three moods: focused, drowsy and stressed. The details online are a little scarce and there’s a chance I may be misrepresenting the product, but it seems to me like the whole neuro-tagging business is just categorizing songs under those three labels. Feeling happy or sad or perturbed or calm or any of the range of human emotions not encapsulated under the labels of focused, drowsy or stressed? Well, why don’t you try building your own mind reading headphones. Mico doesn’t have time for you.

All things considered, I see Mico as an early step in neuroscience as entertainment. The following video shows a tech demo where participants are amazed and confused by Mico’s abilities.

The lady leading the demo claims that the music being played selected from the participants’ subconscious minds, and the participants in turn are impressed by what Mico ends up playing, with the first man in the video saying that the song was exactly what he was thinking of.  The problem is that Mico didn’t know what song the man was thinking of, it just picked a song based on one of three broad mood category. This video was created by Neurowear and features prominently on their site. By emphasizing the idea of taking music from the subconscious mind and the precise predictive powers of Mico, they make the process seem much more intricate, nuanced and esoteric than it actually is. I appreciate the fact that Neurowear is making these videos to generate interest in their projects, but this seems a little overboard.

The commercial science driving projects like this is still in its infancy but the idea of mood sensitive headphones is a really cool one, and probably a more practical use of EEG technology than wearable cat ears. I’d love to see what Mico would look like with more sensitive software that could perform a broader and more dynamic analysis of EEG waves and mood. Right now ‘mind reading’ entertainment products like this are interesting because they are novel, hopefully someday they will be useful as well.

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