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Just the other week, we came across at the EMOKI project on Kickstarter. Essentially, they’ve taken what the Necomimi started and elevated it to a new level by adding more ear options — so now you don’t have to wear the same old white or black ears as everyone else. We were intrigued by the idea, so a few days and a couple short e-mails later, we  set up an interview with Nick Hoffman: the man spearheading the project. We asked him a few questions about EMOKI, and below you’ll find his responses. (Be sure to also check out the video below!)

Q: So how long have you been working on this EMOKI project?

A: Well, I left NeuroSky on June 14. That was the day that EMOKI was born, and it’s basically been full time since then. That was the day that we started building a team basically. Our co-founder Hannah Masius joined on board that day, and I’d been talking with her for a while and she’d seen a lot of people who were interested in doing projects, but wouldn’t fully jump on board and get things done, but once she saw that I was really dedicated, she jumped on and within a few days helped pull a team together.

Q: So I understand that you previously worked for NeuroSky before you left to pursue this project.  What did you do for them while you were there?

A: I was doing channel sales. I worked there for about two years, and I would basically help sign on new partners to do volume purchases of the chips. When the Necomimi came out I was signing up a bunch of new retail stores and going to conventions all the time to sell volume of the product.

Q: I see. So did you have any industrial design experience before you embarked on this project, or is this your first foray into product design?

A: No, no design experience, but essentially when I was at conferences like Fanime in San Jose — where the Necomimi launched in the US — even though the product had launched over a month before in Japan, we were just getting a ton of feedback. Everybody was picking up the Necomimi — they were selling like hotcakes. The ratio of people doing demos to the number of people actually buying them was like 1 out of 3 – it was nuts. So probably overall, one tenth of the 10,000 people there picked up the headset. There were some people who were snatching them up like 3 or 5 at a time, and wholesale buyers were coming in and buying them in volume on the spot — but even though it was selling like crazy, people kept asking, “Are new ears coming out? When are the new ears coming out?” and so on. Some people would say stuff like, “Well, we’re not gonna buy them because we want different ears,” so I would say, “no, you can buy them now, and the ears are detachable, and when new ones come out you can just buy the new ears and not the headset.”

emoki necomimi ears brain controlled bear headset
Emoki bear ears accessory on the Necomimi brain-controlled headset

So at that point I realized that Necomimi should have had a more appropriate watch on the crowd — they should’ve gone to conventions and seen the tremendous enthusiasm their headsets were getting from people. So I made a presentation to the entire NeuroSky team, and I suggested  they use these conventions and other mass gatherings as a sort of market testing method to see if it would truly be worth NeuroSky’s efforts to go out and make new ears. So even though I didn’t end up getting my way that time, I was adamant about how that would lead to a really successful method for NeuroSky to reach new target markets by making new ears — new ears that target the unique  bits of people’s different personalities, and then expanding that to include not only anime conventions, but also to subculture scenes like cosplay and EDM. Big festivals like Burning Man, Symbiosis, Coachella, SXSW — all these music festivals and huge social events where the headsets would be appropriate, but also where people could choose ears that are more suited to their personality and not have to wear the exact same ears that everyone else does — that’s where the idea was truly born.

Q: For those who might not understand how EEG headsets work, could you just give me a brief explanation of how EMOKI is able to interpret your mood using brainwaves?

A: Yeah definitely. So Neurosky was, I believe, the first to commercially produce a single dry-sensor EEG headset. They basically rebuilt EEG from the ground up in the form of a chip, instead of having technicians and extra sensors and gel that takes three showers to wash out of your hair, it just has one simple sensor. It basically touches the FP1 area of the forehead with no hair touching, and the sensor is listening to the entire body’s signal — the analog body signal. and that signal gets sent to a chip, as well as a set or more neutral signals that senses the non-brainwave electricity from a grounded reference from the ear clip. Then the sensor filters out all the electricity form the body and from the ambient environment, like the heartbeat and the muscle movement, which allows it to hone in directly on the brainwaves. And so then it takes the whole brainwave spectrum from 3 to 100 Hertz, which includes delta, theta, beta, alpha, and gamma waves, and from there it processes that information into an attention-relaxation algorithm. So NeuroSky has created these algorithms to be unique and calibrated towards more of a universal approach, whereby anybody can pick up a headset and within 4 to 8 seconds, the EEG should be able understand their baseline, and determine how dominant their alpha/beta brainwaves are with respect to the other parts of the brainwave spectrum. After interpreting these waves and determining your mood, that information is sent to the servo motors that wiggle the ears accordingly.

emoki necomimi ears brain controlled bunny

emoki necomimi ears brain controlled fox

Q: I assume that since you created these emote ears, you’ve probably worn them to a bunch of different places. What kinds of settings have you worn the ears in, and what kind of reactions do you get from people who notice them?

A: Well our first real demonstration after we had the prototypes was at the San Diego comic con, and not only was that a lot of fun, but we had tremendous feedback. We were able to eliminate some of the prototypes because now we’re launching with 13 ears, and we had about 45 different color combination prototypes to choose from, so we’ve had a lot of stuff, and we didn’t want to launch with everything, and that way we could boil it down and kind of maintain costs, so we got a lot of feedback about what people liked and didn’t like, their favorites, and we also got a lot of people who would just stop us dead while we were walking and go like, “Oh my god! What are those? What is going on?” and this was when it really started to pick up for us because we got a lot of validation for our work and our efforts. People were just so enthused because not only would they realize the ears were moving, but when they realized it’s coming from brainwaves they would just freak out, and it was really exciting for both them and for us.

Actually, it’s really even more exciting when people come up to us, and they ask what’s going on and they’re not excited because they don’t believe it and they’re skeptical, and then we take the headsets and put it on them, and then they freak out because their friends start laughing when the ears start to move — that’s my favorite thing to see.

emoki necomimi ears

Q: So although this is your first project, are there any ideas percolating in your mind for other stuff in the future? Can we expect any brainwave-controlled spirit hoods come festival season?

A: That’s an interesting idea — we’d definitely love to talk with [SpiritHoods] if we got the chance. Another idea involves the use of LED lights, but I can’t really go into too much detail right now because we’re in prototype development mode. But it’s safe to say that we’re heading in some fun new directions, some involving brainwave tech and some not involving brainwave tech at all.

Q: So, I suppose to sum things up I’ll ask what’s the best part about wearing the ears, and why should people back your project?

A: Basically I’d just like to say that the most fun aspect about EMOKI ears is that when you’re wearing them, people come to you, and they initiate conversation with you. So whenever I’m wearing them — even if its not for promoting but just for fun — people will come up to me and I can instantly start talking to them about something that I’m passionate about, and that’s a lot more interesting than the standard “hey how are you, what’s your name.” It initiates a really interesting conversation right off the bat, and I’ve made a lot of friends just from wearing the ears.  That’s what I want for other people, and that’s also why I think the technology is so fascinating — it gets attention and acts as a conversation starter, but it can also make social situations just that much more fun and engaging.

Be sure to check out the EMOKI project on Kickstarter!

By Drew Prindle