San Francisco startup Emotiv Systems emerged from the shadows at GDC 2007 with a rather startling announcement: They're working on a way to read your mind, and they're close to release. Big, brassy announcements with nothing behind them are the bread and butter of the gaming industry, the better to be shoved back in a company's face when things don't work out, but Emotiv seems to be a cut above the usual design-doc-and-a-prayer windbags.
For one thing, the pedigree of the Emotiv team is impressive, made up of bright stars of business and award-winning scientists, engineers and executives. The company's founders include: Allan Snyder, a noted neuroscientist and Marconi Prize winner, as well as a pioneer in the field of fiber optics; Tan Le, a rising young technology star and entrepreneur from Australia; Nam Do, a partner of Le's and a gifted student and manager; Neil Weste, one of the leaders in chip design; and Steve Sapiro, a heavy hitter from Intel with a passel of companies under his belt. Sitting on the Board of Directors are two more notable names: John Murray, a heavy hitter in Australia's financial scene, and Ed Fries, formerly one of the head honchos in Microsoft's game division and the reason you've heard of the Xbox.
Finally, Randy Breen is a game industry veteran with a pedigree to die for - 14 years as a producer and executive producer at EA and four and a half years as a Vice President and Head of Development at LucasArts - who now serves as the Chief Product Officer for Emotiv Systems. Breen's job focuses on "extending the research into new areas and figuring out how to productize that research, both from a hardware and software standpoint, and to evangelize it, so that developers understand how to use it. Basically, [to] get SDKs in their hands early." While they've been primarily working with developers, they plan to get a device out to consumers "sometime next year."
According to Breen, the company is three years old. "Two of the founders [Le and Do] were acquainted with a fellow named Allan Snyder ... and a fellow named Neil Weste," he says. "The four of them got together and talked about the potential for creating a device that could tap into unconscious thoughts and use those as a new form of interface for computers, and that lead to about a year and a half of research." The fledgling company recruited Breen for his game industry experience, as the founders felt gaming was a logical fit for the research. Their work produced a headset that recognizes brainwaves and patterns and the Emotiv Development Kit, which lets developers integrate the information from the headset into the games they make, detecting thoughts, emotions and other kinds of brain activity.
"We've announced the release of a software development kit," he says. "The kit is really a subset of what we think will come to market for consumer applications. It gives a sense of direction, and the idea is for us to get that equipment and our software into developer hands early, so that they can start to build applications that utilize these things." Emotiv currently offers three software suites, "the Affectiv Suite, which is emotional detection, the Expressiv Suite, [which] is facial expression, and the Cognitiv Suite, [which] is conscious decision." Using the Expressiv Suite as his example, he says, "The idea is to be able to express yourself naturally rather than using emotes." So rather than typing /smile or /wink, "you might just smile and wink, and be able to translate your physical actions into actions that your character online, or your in-game character can [use to] communicate with another, non-player character." The Affectiv Suite detects emotions. "We released excitement as the first example of that. The idea is that we can detect a range of emotional behavior, from an excited state to a calm state, so that those can be used to trigger events in a game, like control of an audio score, or [translating] your actions onto your character, so that not only does your character respond through your facial expressions, but it might respond through its animation, using your feelings.