Before I put on the cat ears, NeuroSky publicist Kendall Hurley tells me a story. Wearing the cat ears at a product launch party in LA, she was embarrassed to find that the ears perked up whenever an attractive journalist came over to her. NeuroSky Vice President David Westendorf comments that the ears could be used in a "hot or not" scenario, and muses on speed dating as a product use case. There's no one I'm attracted to at the office. For the first time, I'm relieved.
The "ears" I'm speaking of are NeuroSky's most popular product, a pair of plush-covered cat ears that perk up when you're feeling focused, droop at relaxation, and twitch and wiggle for certain other sensations. Called Necomimi (Japanese for "cat ears"), the ears are electroencephalography (EEG) devices, which basically means if they're put on your head they can figure out how you're feeling by reading the electrical signals produced by your brain. In other words, this is a toy that has the ability to read your mind, or at least figure out your feelings.
Despite what the Necomimi's shape may have you believe, putting on the $99 ears is significantly harder than slipping on a headband. First there's a strap that has to go on the back of your head, then a clip that has to latch onto your ear (more tricksy, but still possible, if you have earrings on), then a sensor shaped like a partially-consumed lollipop that swings down and presses against your forehead. Hair can deaden the sensor, so ailurophiles with bangs might want to brush them back beforehand. After that, press the power button and the cat ears start calibrating; in my case, this means that one ear perks up, one ear flops down, and after a minute or so, they start wiggling wildly. Apparently that means they're ready.
"I've never watched someone write before--this is great," Westendorf remarks as I type.
The ears are wiggling back and forth, which means I'm "in the zone" -- both focused and relaxed simultaneously. When I type, my ears wiggle; when I look up to ask questions, they perk, showing "focus." The robotic whirring noises made by the moving ears are surprisingly loud: Westendorf says that the prototype testers enjoyed the noise, so it was "boosted" in the final product. I'm not sure if I like it or not: on the one hand, it's really distracting, on the other hand, I can always tell what my ears are doing. The latter is probably a good thing.
Wiggling ears are apparently also a good thing, and Hurley, Westendorf, and another publicist, Kaitlin Egan, are all pleased with mine. Apparently it's hard for some people to get "in the zone," and the fact that I can do it just by typing interview text is a cause for celebration. The hashtag for Necomimi, emblazoned on the back of the pink promotional t-shirts, is #MakeMyEarsWiggle: the elusive "zone" is a desired state.
Westendorf tells the story of when the company first realized the ears were working.
It involved a mercurial CEO, Westendorf says, and NeuroSky product manager Pedro Vecchi, who was wearing the ears for the first time.
"And every time the CEO got angry, Pedro's ears would spring up," Westendorf says. "And we were all like 'wow, it's actually working!'"
Still, there are some things you can't do with the ears: running, for instance, is "virtually impossible." Not only will the sensor jar, but electrical "noise" from your muscles will interfere with the readings. Still, as long as you skip jarring movement and strenuous activity, there's no reason not to continue wearing them: "we wear 'em all day at the office a lot," Westendorf says, prompting a discussion of various officemates' custom ears. Apparently, you can get used to the overhead robotic noises.
Westendorf is excited about bizarre-use cases. Apparently, one Green Bay Packers fan painted his face green and bought a Necomimi, only to remove the default white kitten ears and add wedges of cheese. He also talks about a poker culture that's started to develop, one where all players wear Necomimi and try to "bluff their thoughts" or risk giving away the state of their hand.
I'm no poker player or cheesehead, but for the rest of the day, I have the cat ears. As I type up the interview, I float in and out of the zone, and the robot noises become background drone. A lot of people from different departments at HuffPost find ways to come over to ask what I'm wearing. Fellow HuffPostTech-er and desk mate Britney Fitzgerald uses her cell phone to snap pictures of me, and tweets them from the HuffPostTech Twitter account; I get back at her by filming her wearing the ears a couple of days later.
Take a look at the clip. What do y'all think of this swanky new mind-reading device?