THQ reads thoughts with EmSense

Publisher attempts to remove guesswork out of manufacturing hits through high-tech brain-scanning gadgetry.

THQ tried an unusual research method last year to evaluate people's early emotional responses to its in-development shooter Frontlines: Fuel of War. Instead of asking a test group how it liked the game, as with most market research, the company hired technology specialist EmSense to measure people's brain waves, heart rate, and sweat responses while they played the military-themed game.

EmSense's hardware.

Armed with that data, THQ took Frontlines in a whole new direction developmentally, said Bob Aniello, chief marketing officer at THQ. "We typically rely on people to tell us what they think. Using EmSense technology, it's not what people say, but what they're thinking about it. And that's so much more accurate," Aniello said.

It remains to be seen whether Frontlines will break out from the pack (it's slated for release in early 2008), but how it was developed could point to the future of market research. Experimental as it may seem, measuring brain waves and other physiological responses is catching on in industries like gaming and advertising.

"Consumer advertising largely doesn't shape your subconscious behavior," said Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley. "Part of the problem is that we haven't figured out how to study the quick, unconscious emotional responses to the advertisements, and this kind of technology may give us a clue."

Monterey, California-based EmSense (short for "emotion sensing") was founded in 2004 in part by former students of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab. The company has developed analysis software and hardware that looks like a geeked-out tennis headband embedded with Energizer batteries and several hospital-style monitors. The wireless headset includes a dry EEG (electroencephalogram) sensor to measure the electrical activity of the brain without the use of gels; an accelerometer, which detects motions and facial twitches; and a heart-rate monitor that can gauge stress rates.

With data from these sensors, EmSense can detect whether or when the wearer blinks, blushes, or sweats. "Combing all these measurements together, you get a model of how someone's responding to an ad or a game," said Hans Lee, chief technology officer of EmSense. "We can get a second-by-second emotional and cognitive response of the audience."

This kind of technology has been around for years in research circles. More recently, companies and academic researchers have used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain-imaging systems to analyze activity, or blood flow, in various centers of the brain to understand people's desires and fears. FKF Applied Research, for example, demonstrated the techniques by showing people's emotional reactions to Super Bowl commercials in the last two years.

Detractors say that fMRI research is too costly. Keltner said it costs thousands of dollars to rent an fMRI machine and other physiological-measurement equipment, along with hiring a physician and statistician to do this kind of testing.

Not so, argues EmSense's Lee. He said his company's scaled-down technology makes it more affordable to conduct upfront consumer research on visual media such as commercials, movies, and games.

Developing a game, for example, can run into the tens of millions of dollars. What's worse is that relatively few games turn a profit, and even fewer achieve mass popularity. The advertising industry also suffers from consumers' resistance to commercial pitches. Most ad campaigns fall flat because they fail to push the right emotional buttons.

Lee said that EmSense's technology helps advertisers see how people respond--either positively or negatively--to a commercial, second by second. In a recent demonstration, Lee showed how people reacted to Blockbuster's "How to use a Mouse" TV ad, which aired during this year's Super Bowl. In the first frame, when an animated rabbit punches down on a pet mouse, people generally showed confusion and dislike for the commercial. But positive emotional responses shot up when the rabbit began to drag a squealing mouse back and forth in its cage.

EmSense has largely operated in stealth mode since its founding, and it remains covert on many subjects, including how its back-end technology works. EmSense's only publicly disclosed customer is THQ, but Lee said it has had deals with several advertising clients since January. Lee would not say how much the system costs potential customers.

Lee got the idea for EmSense as an MIT undergraduate after working on an emotion-sensitive robot called Leonardo. He later worked on the idea with his father, Michael, a former employee of HP Labs and an EmSense cofounder. The company has a total of six cofounders and 21 employees in offices in San Francisco, Santa Monica, and Monterey.

THQ is looking to EmSense for more information on how people respond to its content before it hits stores. The game maker's test involved a minute-long CGI video from prealpha footage that captures the essence of the game. Showing the clip to a small audience, THQ got a read on the general response of would-be players, without them actually playing the game. In later stages of development, THQ might evaluate player responses to the game by exposing them to 20 minutes of actual play.

THQ struck a deal with EmSense last year; and with the technology, the company gets insight on play of up to 50 minutes of the game, with comparisons to games in its genre.

"The tests helped us position the game; it was originally a cooperative-play, squad-style military game, and now it's more of an open-world, multiplayer game," Aniello said.

He added: "We believe we have a winner."

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41 comments
Mysticgamer2000
Mysticgamer2000

It looks like a mind control head band created by Cobra.

haesuse
haesuse

very innovative but than again as western world gamers we had a problem with diggin on using a voice coms to interact with characters and lead them thru the game. this is even more complex and ways away from standard gaming practices. I think that it would cool, but it will be a while before we see this in full blown everyday gaming!

pidow
pidow

I HAVE TO PLAY THIS!.

felshs
felshs

cool......the next -gen better improve more than the graphic and power

okassar
okassar

I think that's pretty innovative and new in the gaming industry,if it works out,all developers should start using it.

MTGDallas
MTGDallas

that seems like a waste of $200,000 to me

Phazevariance
Phazevariance

Whatever brings better gaming experiences to the table...

ashuncc2
ashuncc2

Well, using mdern technology could prove beneficial to game developers. People don't always say what they actually feel/think.

uberjannie
uberjannie

But it games.. isnt it always too late to actually change the game if the game feels total crap? They cant change any core mechanics and stuff like that, they can just add or remove new features. Otherwise its duke nukem all over again. Done when its done xD

eht
eht

ha ha thq can con man mind game all they want..thq gsc stalker are on my crap list..i will never buy any thing from either of them again.. they can trip and all fall on his heads maybe choke on the mind control head set wires or something and die for all i care..lol

PockyYoruko
PockyYoruko

if they could read minds, they should test to see if humans can emit certain parterns at will, and then create a game that goes by those brain waves to control the charater!! That'll be like some... dot hack stuff without the controller right there!!!!

Rect_Pola
Rect_Pola

It doesn't matter how positively you take an ad the first time. By the 400th time you still want to throw your TV out the window.

iuns
iuns

Mind reading... good for game evaluations... but what happens if it goes to other aspects of life... no secrets or anything =S

TWOC2689
TWOC2689

Everything has to start off some where.

lsny
lsny

There's one of two paths this technology could follow.

nemes1s3000
nemes1s3000

Looking forward to some game demos involving this.

brokengammer
brokengammer

I know who'll profit most from this exercise......EmSense, and good luck to them, I say and hell it looks kick ass kinda

ketsuatama
ketsuatama

I know who'll profit most from this exercise......EmSense, and good luck to them, I say!

RaiKageRyu
RaiKageRyu

No, I hate it when publishers change the game to suit the market needs. You're letting money dictate your vision.

trunksjimmy71
trunksjimmy71

Hmmm... This is really interesting this will find the TRUTH about games and not "erm... yeah i liked the game (Thinking: NOT)"

ZiPPY45
ZiPPY45

Interesting I have been looking forward to this game I hope the changes they make are positive ones and make the overall game better...cuz I was liking it the way the game was already

puckhead778
puckhead778

personally i think this is just for attention....

EarthThatWas
EarthThatWas

I'd be a terrible test subject. All I think about when I'm gaming are cheese danishes and what color radishes would be if the sun was on the opposite side of the earth.

cf2012
cf2012

Well thats kind of effin creapy

mpeg3s
mpeg3s

Interesting, but devices like these have been around for years. We will see what changes!

stziggy
stziggy

I wonder if EmSense will make a model for the indy developer.

X-RS
X-RS

lol like theres a pc that can process at the speed of (how many human brains?)?

YukoAsho
YukoAsho

My thoughts exactly, JamesL007. We don't even really understand how the mind works yet, how are we supposed to assign certain thoughts and emotions to simple electrical patterns in the brain? Seems like desperate attempts to gain market share.

TheC0m1ssar
TheC0m1ssar

LOL, hellmonkey, I know what you mean. >_>

JamesL007
JamesL007

How can the computer read the thought process of the mind, I mean come on the only thing it can do is read the activity levels and the eye movement.

NukeAOL
NukeAOL

I saw this story and went :O why? I test there. I've done testing on a few THQ games with Emsense, as well as commercial testing, and playing games already out on the market. The concept is very interesting to me, as they have a computer recording me both playing and what I'm thinking at the time. It's easy, nets me a little spending cash(college), and I occasionally get to see or play things nobody else has.

Dr_Corndog
Dr_Corndog

Hellmonkey012, you literally made me laugh out loud.

Hellmonkey012
Hellmonkey012

I just hope they don't use it while somebody's playing Dead or Alive Extreme. If you know what I mean.

bigbadbobbyb
bigbadbobbyb

that's pretty cool... but also kinda creepy.

comthitnuong
comthitnuong

So THQ is going to buff up its adds with this....I guess it could work, if that thing really does read emotions.