Consumer Neurotech: Volume V
Other Neurotech: The Odd Ones Out
In Volume I of this series on Consumer Neurotech, we established a framework for thinking about Consumer Neurotechnologies and their value propositions. In Volume II, we discussed neurotechnologies that have the value proposition of Control (or, using our taxonomy from Volume I, neurotechnologies whose “Effect-type” is Control). In Volume III, we analyzed neurotech with an effect-type of Feedback. In Volume IV, we looked at neurotechnologies that directly modulate the nervous system. In this Volume V, we’ll look at some wildcard consumer neurotech that doesn’t fit in any of the preceding categories.
Neurotech for Temperature Neuromodulation
You once fervently argued with a Chicago bartender regarding the devilishly polarizing topic of Chicago winters—what’s worse, brown-gray snow-turned-slush, or the biting cold? The bartender sided errantly with the slush; you offered mathematical proof for the cold. Today is a case-in-point: how are you supposed to prepare for the board meeting in 30 minutes if you’re shivering? It’s 8am and the heating still hasn’t kicked in at the office; you think about setting a reminder, but reconsider because your shivering probably precludes the dexterity required to type semi-correct words into the iPhone’s Reminders app. You opt for Siri instead, and the act of speaking draws your attention to the blue cold on your cheeks. Next to your monitor sits a watch-like device with a large rectangular panel. You put the band on, and the LED indicator signals that it’s turned on, and pulses of heat extend across your wrist. Five minutes later, with the assistance of your cup of coffee, your vitriol towards the Chicago cold goes away. You find it refreshingly easy to enter into a quick flow, and do your meeting prep with eyes closed, fingers playing the keyboard, letters as music. Walking into the boardroom, as social air traffic control helps you plan your descent to the mahogany table, you muse: there’s something elegant about the contrast between warmth indoors and the frigidity outside.
• • •
Every sense in the body is underpinned by the nervous system, and this opens up opportunities to control/modulate the senses. One such sense is temperature.
- Medium of innovation: Hardware
- Device-type: Stimulate
- Form-factor: Armband
- Effect-type: Physiological
Neurotechnology can leverage temperature-sensitive neurons in the skin to modulate subjective temperature perception, which is the goal of the Embr Wave. The Wave looks like a watch with the watch-face on the inside of the wrist. Instead of a watch face, the Wave has a heating and cooling element that’s used to coax a user’s nervous system into perceiving that the user is warmer or colder than before the Wave was turned on. This phenomenon is similar to running your wrists under warm water when you feel chilly.
The device costs $300, and the August 2018 manufacturing batch contained 1500 units (as specified on their website at the time of our research).
- Like many other consumer neurotechnology products, the Embr Wave has a 30-day money-back guarantee, reflecting the variability in its effectiveness for different people.
- The Embr Wave falls in the category of consumer neurotechnology that’s “wear-as-needed.” When a user is feeling too warm or too cold, they put the device on and start a 3-5 minute heating or cooling cycle. The device is no longer needed after that. Realistically, the Wave will live most of its life in bags, on desks, and in drawers—it’s hard to imagine users wearing around a clunky-looking inverse watch that remains dead weight most of the time.
Use-Cases and Market Size
We didn’t identify any useful heuristics for sizing this market, so we’re omitting a market size here.
Sometimes it’s fun to reenact moments from movies where the protagonist stands still in the middle of a crowd. You like standing in the middle of a sidewalk during lunchtime, sitting on the ground in high-foot-traffic city parks during warm summer months, pushing against the crowd entering a baseball stadium, ambling among the miniature mountains of a densely-populated white-sand beach. In the cinematographic versions of this, you can pause playback to observe the facial expressions of the extras, listen to them walk and speak, understand their emotion. In real life though, on your beaches and walkways, the experience is transient. Your senses don’t have much time to experience it all, and you find this frustrating because you feel drawn to observe and understand the details in the world that surrounds you. You recently saw a new piece of technology online that caught your attention more than most do: it’s a wristband that turns the sounds of the world into vibrations. As a collector of sensory richness, you had a hunch that this would be a product for you. Today, you’re at the beach again. You’ve been standing in one spot for long enough that the white grains have conformed to your feet, filtering down between your toes. Your eyes are closed because today is about a different sense. Normally, you’d call it sound, but today it’s something…different. It’s richer and extended. Today, you hear in the waves and in the harmonizing cinematic laughter from a mother and her daughter detail you’ve never encountered before because this is a new sensory experience.
• • •
In pop culture and folk neuroscience, humans have five senses. Human curiosity, amplified through science fiction and fantasy, has for years posed the question: can that set of five senses be expanded?
- Medium of innovation: Integrated
- Device-type: Stimulate
- Form-factor: Armband
- Effect-type: Sensory
A company called NeoSensory has tackled this question for the sense of hearing. NeoSensory lists four products on their website. Clarify is a wrist-worn device that associates vibrations with sounds to help disambiguate words for people with a hearing impairment. Buzz is similar to Clarify but focuses on enhancing hearing for users without a hearing impairment. Vest can convert a variety of information into haptic sensory perception in order to grow intuition for that information (e.g., stock market data by converting the stock market data into patterns of vibration). Exoskin is a $400 haptics vest for use with virtual reality; NeoSensory partnered with High Fidelity to produce this product, which was also featured in Season 2 of the TV show, Westworld (see NeoSensory’s Facebook page for more details). No information on the pricing of Clarify, Buzz, or Vest is available on their website.
- NeoSensory highlights the fine distinction between therapeutic and augmentative uses of neurotechnology. Clarify and Buzz are similar products: both are wrist-worn haptics devices that use haptic vibrations to accompany audible sound. One focuses on helping people who have a hearing impairment, and the other focuses on enhancing people without a hearing impairment. This begs the oft-invoked question: what problem are you solving? Clarify addresses the obvious problem of hearing impairment. Buzz, on the other hand, requires logical gymnastics to explain the problem. “Question: what problem are you solving? Answer: the problem is that we aren’t enhanced yet.” For example, imagine a futuristic memory prosthesis that gives its users external storage of human memories. This device solves the problem that “people are bad at remembering things.” But, the critical consideration is whether or not people notice they’re bad at remembering. If people notice, then the memory prosthesis has a visceral draw; if people don’t notice, then it doesn’t. Likewise, with regards to Buzz, do people ever wish their hearing was better?
- However, there’s an argument to be made that this is the wrong framing. Consider the iPhone: people weren’t clamoring for mobile internet, yet the iPhone introduced it as an entirely new category because the experience was profoundly different and enabling. It’s possible that this question, “What new experience are you enabling, and how profound is it?” is more salient.
- We suspect that enhancing neurotechnologies will only succeed when either a) they simultaneously solve an a priori evident problem, or b) when potential purchasers can access compelling demonstrations before buying. It’s worth noting that this scenario dichotomy only applies to a culture where neurotechnological enhancement is not the norm; if neurotechnological enhancement is the norm, then social pressure will act as a forcing function. Entertaining nigh-science fiction notions of neurotechnology-mediated intelligence enhancement, as in the case of the memory prosthesis: does this eventuality mean that human augmentation will be self-propagating since even people who don’t initially want to use it will realize they’re at a disadvantage unless they do? Compare this to smartphones: because such a large percentage of the population uses them, if someone doesn’t own a smartphone, they’re at a disadvantage in the professional realm, and arguably the personal realm as well.
- The Vest, as advertised, is bulky; even if it were able to give stock traders an edge, it would face massive friction for adoption. This is another case where it would be interesting to figure out what works best to get potential users to make a purchase: quantitative evidence versus emotional appeals.
Use-Cases and Market Size
There are 28.8M American adults who can benefit from hearing aids, but only 20% (5.76M) of those people actually use them. Partially, this is because hearing aids range in price from $1,500 to $5,000 dollars; additionally, hearing aids carry social and aesthetic disincentives. Intuitively, there’s a meaningful market for a non-hearing aid product to assist those with hearing impairments.
To estimate this market size, we have two components: the percentage of people who already own hearing aids who will use Clarify in addition to their existing hearing aid, and the percentage of people who don’t already own hearing aids but who will purchase Clarify since it’s a cheaper and less socially intrusive solution. There’s no available pricing information on Clarify, so we assume it’s on par with other technologies like the Embr Wave, and we set the price at $300 for our estimates. We assume that penetration rates will be higher for people who aren’t already using hearing aids than for those who are, since presumably Clarify will have less marginal value for the latter group. Our estimate is that, in 2025, Clarify sales will be $103,700,000.
General auditory enhancement
As far as we know of, this is the first consumer sensory enhancement. There’s no way to predict reception to this type of sensory enhancement product without first testing its reception experimentally. For consumer neurotechnologies like this, where it’s legitimately new and without precedent, it will be important to find ways to test public sentiment before launching or investing in a product. Ideally, these tests would incorporate social dynamics and attempt to understand how the product would be received when introduced to different groups. For example, what would happen if this were blanket-marketed to San Francisco-based software engineers, as opposed to Google-employed software engineers, as opposed to New York-based software engineers? Would the characteristics of these groups (geography and trade as the shared feature, versus employer as the shared feature) impact how sentiment towards sensory enhancement changes over time (the sentiment-time curve)? Any product needs product-market fit, but it’s harder when there’s no precedent, and possibly strong pushback (e.g., “Auditory enhancement ruins the authenticity of the human experience.”).
SPARK Neuro is an advertising optimization company: using EEG, galvanic skin response (GSR), facial expressions, and eye-tracking, they derive two simple signals about user engagement with advertising content. SPARK generates an attention signal, ranging from 0 to 10, and an emotion signal, ranging from -10 to 10. Customers can submit video clips or other creative material for testing, and specify their desired demographic. SPARK, in turn, will send the company a monthly engagement report about their creative content. This is made possible because SPARK is constantly running subjects.
- The use of neuroanalytics to create digital content is like “indirect neurofeedback.” Instead of directly giving neuro/biofeedback to a user and using that to directly achieve a desired mental state, there’s an intermediary—the advertisement—which gets adjusted (not in realtime) to maximize a desired mental state or behavior in the user.
- In spirit, this is no different from what advertising, speech-writing, book-writing, etc. have always tried to do: maximize engagement.
- The question, therefore, is whether or not there’s something fundamentally different about using neurotechnology to enhance the engagement-optimization process. In the eyes of policy and ethics, should this be treated differently than focus groups and surveys?
- Let’s suppose that SPARK and its customers want to understand engagement to an advertisement for a very specific demographic. Further, let’s suppose that neural responses are relatively similar between demographics (which is plausible given this research demonstrating that similar neural responses predict friendships). Additionally, in order to get around the thorny issue of whether or not it’s ethical to use knowledge of neural signals to influence someone’s behavior, let’s suppose a law is enacted that requires user consent before neural signals can be used, for example, in a mobile application to influence the user’s behavior. In this particular case, the neural signals of SPARK’s demographically-matched test subjects become proxy signals for people who haven’t yet given consent. How should the neurotechnology community handle this scenario?
- In a video demonstration from SPARK, their engagement metrics are overlaid on an advertisement and the results are surprisingly intuitive. In a sense, any kind of neuroanalytics will yield a more quantitative version of what humans already try to do qualitatively with our social brains. The difference between behavioral analytics and neuroanalytics is that neuroanalytics uses direct physiological measures, which in principle are better representations of the underlying system of study: the brain.
Use-Cases and Market Size
The global advertising market is expected to be $558B in 2018, and given that advertising is a statistics game (“What percentage of viewers will buy this product after viewing the ad? Will that percentage, multiplied by the total viewership, multiplied by the profit from the product sale, outweigh the advertising spend?”), the higher the purchase conversion rate can go, the better. Beyond this, it’s difficult to come up with a sound heuristic to size the neuroanalytics market, so we omit a market size here.
In this final Volume of our Consumer Neurotech series, we took a look at some consumer neurotech that falls outside of our previous classification system. While this post concludes our deep-dive on consumer neurotech, stay tuned for a follow-up post where we discuss some high-level conclusions from our research.
- Volume I: Introduction
- Volume II: Neurotech for Control
- Volume III: Neurotech for Feedback
- Volume IV: Neurotech for Brain Modulation
- Volume V: Other Neurotech (The Odd Ones Out)
Disclaimer: We actively write about the themes in which we invest or may invest: virtual reality, augmented reality, artificial intelligence, and robotics. From time to time, we may write about companies that are in our portfolio. As managers of the portfolio, we may earn carried interest, management fees or other compensation from such portfolio. Content on this site including opinions on specific themes in technology, market estimates, and estimates and commentary regarding publicly traded or private companies is not intended for use in making any investment decisions and provided solely for informational purposes. We hold no obligation to update any of our projections and the content on this site should not be relied upon. We express no warranties about any estimates or opinions we make.