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Emotiv Cap, Spy Surveillance, and the Artistic Imagination

posted Jan 30, 2013, 10:08 PM by Ellen Pearlman

Emotiv Cap, Spy Surveillance, and the Artistic Imagination

Emotiv Cap

Brain sensors, which I blogged about a few months ago in my post with the performative event “The Ascent,” have become more threatening in that their uses can be used in ways that the creators never expected. 

I researched what  one of the four co-creators of the Emotive Cap, Nam Do, envisioned for the Emotiv Cap. Nam is Vietnamese, and attended university in Australia, where he has been named one of Australia’s top ten digital entrepreneurs. As he says about his invention, “hopefully the force is going to be with us.” This shows the benevolent and creative side of this technology.


Nam Do of Emotive

The Emotive reads changes in electrical activity in the brain. Those changes can be mapped either to emotions, or to facial movements such as eyelid and eyebrow positions, eye positions, smiling, laughing, clenching, and smirking. These changes can then be mapped to other devices or even to a virtual puppet-like avatar.

The Emotive Epoch software It is set to read certain affects;  “Excitement”, “Engagement/Boredom”, “Meditation”, and “Frustration,” though what those emotions mean exactly is up for conjecture. It also tracks six specific directions;  left, right, up, down, forward, and “zoom” or depth, as well as six rotations; counter clockwise ,  left and right, backward and forward and an interesting one referred to as “disappear.” 

Emotiv on the brain

It takes eight seconds to calibrate the specific contours and fold patterns of an individual’s brain, a process so unique it is akin to a fingerprint. Also both conscious and non-conscious content has been mapped into the software for accuracy and taking into account the variations in folding patterns. 

Mapping points in green of subject’s brain. The two black points have yet to trigger and are calibrating.

Nam asked a volunteer on stage to think about the concept of an orange cube fading. First that specific brain activity was mapped in only eight seconds.The second time the volunteer thought about the orange cube fading, it happened live time for the audience to observe.

Orange cube growing darker and smaller, where it eventually fades to black. On the left hand side there is an orange-red-black bar, which is measuring the brain activity of the user.

The billions of neurons in the brain constantly interact with one another emitting tiny electrical impulses. What scientists at Emotiv did was  remap those signals, or instances of “disappear,” back to their source in a specific area of the brain.  The Emotive reads and translates those electrical impulses with a latency of 150 milliseconds.

This means the Emotiv could be used, for example, for focus group testing, or perhaps powering an artificial limb. You could even turn on your toaster with it, or power specific types of art installations. But there is a darker side as well. In a paper written for USENIX Security 12 titled “On the Feasibility of Side-Channel Attacks With Brain-Computer Interfaces,” a mouthful of a title, the authors conclude that someone could theoretically use it to steal your bank PIN number. It mostly examined the mysteriously named “P300” brain signal. 

The picture on the left with a lot of blue and red activity is when you recognize a specific pattern (like your pin) in terms of brain activity. The picture on the right means no recognition.

This makes a lie-detector test seem like a powder puff in terms of a killer app. Currently this is all experimental and in a lab, but the implications are chilling. Of course artists, who are great at fantasy and imagination could fake these devices out by visualizing impossible alternatives. But is it possible for EEG readers to ever track and confine artistic imagination and creativity?