As NeuroSky Vice President David Westendorf tells it, it was a shy product planner at a Japanese high-tech fashion company,who came up with the idea. A quiet worker at the new design company, she proposed a truly anime idea: a pair of "cat ears" that moved based on the wearer's mood, allowing the shy to communicate their emotions without the pain of speaking. The Japanese company, Neurowear, liked the idea so much that they made the concept into a video. The video went viral, and now the ears are real.
But to tell the story that way leaves off the rise an unlikely underdog, and a marketing scheme that was truly a strange gamble on success.
Let's start at the beginning.
Integral to the planner's idea for mind-controlled cat ears was a technology called electroencephalography, or EEG. To put it sensationally, EEG is a way of reading minds. Literally, it is the use of devices like Emotiv's EPOC and NeuroVigil's iBrain to record low-level electrical output from the brain; that output can be mapped to thoughts or even emotions. Invented in 1924, EEG once required cumbersome electrode caps and was only used in neuro-intensive medical science; the recordings, even there, were imprecise and clumsy. But in 2007, Doctor Philip Low (later the founder of NeuroVigil) invented single-channel EEG. This reduced the electrode caps to a single node, and precision has been improving ever since.
Through use of EEG, Neurowear knew the ears were possible, but the company wasn't in the business of mass-producing bio-sensors. In fact, Neurowear wasn't in the business of mass-producing of anything. Though sheltered under the umbrella of Japanese advertiser Dentsu, they were an odd collective of anthropologists, designers and computer engineers just starting out, interested in the idea of the “Augumented Human Body” and brave enough to band together in Japan's entrepreneur-unfriendly scene. And perhaps not "knowing better", they took it upon themselves to promote a product that didn't exist.
First, Neurowear transliterated the Japanese word for "cat ear" into Roman lettering, altered the spelling to be more "kawaii" ("cute"), and produced "Necomimi", an English-language name for the product. Next, the cat ear team launched an English-language Facebook page and an elegant English-and-Japanese promotional video on Youtube. By early May, the video had gone viral, making the rounds on CNET, Reuters and TIME.com, and gathering 2.5 million hits in the following year.
"We were stunned." Westendorf said of the video's success.
Over the next month, Necomimi-mania continued to grow internationally. In early June, Creative-Online.com showcased the Necomimi viral video as one of the "best ideas across all areas of consumer culture", while international news agency Agence France-Presse (AFP) asked for and received free cat ears from Neurowear's designers.
But Neurowear wasn't sitting in the catbird seat just yet. In fact, the company made what could have been a very big mistake: On May 11th, as the Necomimi promo video went viral, Neurowear announced that the headset would go on sale at the end of the year -- with no US licensing partner and little more than prototypes to show.
Happily, Neurowear's grand gamble was a success, and representatives of NeuroSky, an American producer of EEG-enabled hardware, contacted the Japanese firm. Negotiation details are vague, but the result was clear: Neurowear got a partner, the Americans got a licensing deal and the rest, they say, is history.
So what's next for Necomimi? Well, by the time you read this story, Kelly Osborne will have custom-made black cat ears, and Anderson Cooper will have ears that look like Yoda's. Officially, Necomimi is sold only with white kitten ears, but NeuroSky encourages third parties to creatively customize. Presently, a quick internet search reveals colors from every breed of cat (including Alice's Cheshire), wolf ears, LED light-ups and “L’époque bleue”, a tweed-inspired design by Japanese headwear artist Nobuki Hizume.
The next generation of ears, Westendorf reveals, will also be able to tell if a wearer is "attracted" or "repelled" by what's in front of her -- but, non-intuitively, the attraction reaction can also be triggered by anger. Westendorf, however, isn't worried by this quirk.
"People will have fun with it," he says. "It's a step in the long path of neuroscience. It's not as sophisticated as it will be."
Meanwhile, Neurowear's Facebook page hints at more whimsical tech to come. March 2012 saw several teasers posted on the page, including a clip of a sleek Mercedes covered in optical camouflage and a science fiction trailer followed by the question "what if augmented reality were more accessible in daily life?" Neurowear's website now says its next project is "coming soon."
Pending that big reveal, is this not enough Necomimi for you? If your answer is yes, watch these exclusive ear-filled clips and read this reporter's review of the headset here. To pick up a pair of these mind-reading cat ears for yourself, visit the Necomimi shop online, where you can purchase a set for $99.
What do you think of this innovative device? Share your thoughts with us in the comments, or tweet at us (@HuffPostTech)
CORRECTION: A previous date for when the Youtube promotional video received 2.5 million views, supplied by Mr. Westendorf, was incorrect; the number of views reached 2.5 million a year after the video was released. Also, language has been changed in the headline and article to avoid a term with pejorative connotations in Japanese culture.
Editor's Note: After publication of this article, NeuroSky Vice President David Westendorf contacted HuffPost to correct his previous statements that NeuroSky was approached by Neurowear regarding the Necomimi product. The article has been edited to reflect the fact that, to the contrary, NeuroSky approached Neurowear, and statements by Westendorf to that effect have been removed.