This event kicks off the MIT Media Lab Diversity Committee’s monthly lecture series. To learn more go to: http://diversity.media.mit.edu. Live-blogging contributed by Catherine D’Ignazio, Heather Craig, Jude Mwenda, Hiromi Onishi, Yu Wang and Muhammad Ali Hashmi .
About Stanley Yang
As Chief Executive Officer of NeuroSky, Inc. (http://neurosky.com), Stanley Yang leads the bio-sensor company that has become the global leader in mass market Brain-Computer Interface technology. NeuroSky has developed a non-invasive neural communication sensor that converts brainwaves and other bio-signals into digital electronic signals. This “ThinkGear” technology can control electronic devices, enable machines to adapt to people, and further enhance education and research on creative applications powered by the brain. NeuroSky has forged successful partnerships with a broad range of companies from Fortune 500 industry leaders to innovative independent developers. Furthermore, NeuroSky leverages collaboration with a number of top domestic and international academic institutions to move technology out of the lab and into the marketplace.
Pattie Maes welcomes everyone to the Diversity Speaker Series. She introduces Stanley as the CEO of NeuroSky, a company that is exploring markets in brain interfaces in entertainment, health and other fields. Pattie describes the format of the event which will be a conversation with Roz Picard, a professor at the MIT Media Lab who runs the Affective Computing group. Following the discussion will be an open Q & A with students and staff.
Stanley introduces himself and describes how he’ll speak about diversity and his company. He asks why “smartphones” are “smart”? They don’t recognize you and they are not that smart. In fact, Stanley’s dog is smarter than the smartphone. Machines in general don’t recognize human beings unless we do something to them. We conform to the machines rather than vice versa.
At NeuroSky, the mantra is to have machines conform to humans. They want technology conforming to people. Stanley tells us that “consumers are very very lazy”. Consumer products should be easy and intuitive to use. Otherwise we blame our failings on our machines and platforms. Using biosensors, NeuroSky hopes to make smarter machines.
In 2006, they got their first funding to build a sensor and create interfaces to the brain and body. They didn’t want to simply make a science fair project because they had to make money. He was previously in two start-up companies – he already understood the shareholder demands. Having the tech is one thing but knowing how to disseminate it is another.
Stanley repeats that consumers are lazy and don’t want to learn. He describes how he never reads any manual that comes with the equipment and machines in his life. So if you have a brand new technology that you want to introduce – where should you go? No one knows how to use it yet.
Stanley shows a video of a kid using the Jedi force to control his environment. He decided to try to show his technology to George Lucas at Skywalker Ranch. The whole world knows about Star Wars and about the force. He thought if he could affiliate with the force then people would understand the technology intuitively.
Stanley shows a video of a kid going on Ellen to show off his Star Wars jedi Force Trainer. The kid gives the Jedi Force Trainer a “10”! This cameo of the kid demo-ing happened at Christmas and then the parents could buy the kit.
Stanley describes how the technology had to be simple enough that someone could open the box and do something with it in 10 seconds or less. Building the technology is one thing. But bringing it to market, making it work consistently is a whole other project.
The Star Wars Jedi Trainer was the first product they made and they put everything into it to ensure it would work. They found that going with a brand-name affiliation gave them an advantage in appealing to wide consumer bases.
The trainer was actually only using about 5% of the tech that NeuroSky had available. The next product was called MindFlex and published through Mattel. Time Magazine voted it top 100 most influential toys from 1923 until the present.
Games are only a small percent of the revenue. NeuroSky makes a number of educational devices such as the Cloud based Interactive Textbook for many countries’ educational systems (though not the US because of fragmentation in the market).
He goes on to show the Necomimi product. It was selling 3000 units per hour when they first released it (which was a problem because they could only manufacture 2000 per week). The product exceeded Stanley’s expectations entirely. The engineer had wanted to build “brainwave cat ear technology” and Stanley did not take this seriously at all. He now admits that he was wrong. They spent about 3 million dollars and it sold a great deal internationally. He shows the Necomimi video.
The videos went viral and the gadget was picked up by a number of TV personalities internationally. In China and Taiwan they created a music video with a famous pop star wearing the ears.
Though these projects are fun, most of the revenue actually gets generated by other products. They have ECG (Electrocardiograph) sensor technology that they have built into many items. For example, the Aerowatch and cell phones:
Stanley shows a phone with two sensors on the back that keep track of your health and fitness. He describes how the sensors have been integrated into smartphones, watches, tablets, and sports/fitness gear.
NeuroSky is working with Stanford Hospital and deploying the phones to cardio patients to monitor them 24-7.
Stanley describes that the sensors can go on your head or on your wrist. They are currently talking with many different wearable tech companies to devise new applications for their sensors. He says that there is a lot of amazing work going on in this field right now.
Q & A with Roz Picard
Roz: The students wanted me to ask you a little bit about your background. You grew up in Taiwan?
Stanley: I was born in Taiwan. My dad was in the Navy and my parents met there. I traveled a lot with my father. I also spent time in Hong Kong and Vietnam where I was actually during the war. The experience of living through that taught me about many different cultures. I also spent time in Japan and I learned that every culture is worthy. I love to assimilate myself into different cultures wherever I am. After I moved to the US I did my best to understand the country. While in Hong Kong, I thought their English was English until I came here. My first day of junior high here was shocking. I noticed students were sitting on tables – In Asia you have to sit at your desk. People were sitting on tables talking freely and talking back to the teacher – WHOA! What’s up with that. I was quickly voted teacher’s aide because I was the most submissive student. The first day I had to find the restroom and I asked where the wash closet was. This kid went “What?” I had to actually say “Where do you go pee?” That was an experience of culture shock.
Roz: Another question from the students – what inspired you to pursue engineering?
Stanley: That was easy. In 1979, the very first movie I went to in the U.S. was Star Wars. And I thought all the technology was real and was dismayed to learn it was fake. I guess that’s why I decided to go into engineering because I had to make it real.
Roz: And then you studying engineering at Berkeley. And what inspired you to study business?
Stanley: I quickly learned I wasn’t the best student. I was even sort of lazy. I started as an engineer but two years later I went to another company (?? NAME?) that went public in the 1990s. My boss called me and told me at 24 years old I was going to manage the engineering team. Because I wasn’t really doing my engineering work. So that’s how I became a manager.
Roz: what made you start the EEG? just because of the force?
Stanley describes how the CEO gave him a million bucks to go start his own enterprise. Stanley thought it was a joke and framed the check. Then two weeks later the CEO called him up and told him he was fired if he didn’t actually go use the check. He and his team fundraised more and founded Tricent (sp?) and then sold it in 2004. Stanley was thinking of retiring at that point (in his thirties) but all his golf buddies were working still. He watched a lot of daytime TV but decided he didn’t like Oprah. Then he realized that he didn’t want to be retired yet. But he had to figure out what to work on.
His friend called him up and talked about a professor working on brainwave technology and invited him to take a look. Stanley declined. Finally another friend convinced him to go talk to the professor. He saw a huge helmet with a bunch of sensors which was driving the radio controlled car. He thought it was great but that nobody would wear a helmet. The professor called him up later and asked what he suggested to transform the technology into something viable for the market. Stanley replied that the technology has to be simple and easy to use. Great technology is great technology but what people will purchase is a different issue. He suggested reducing the sensors down to just one and simplifying the overall design.
Roz: How much money did you start out with?
S: 1.2 million dollars. I put a lot of that in myself because you have to prove to the investors that you are serious. Not everyone can do that. I wanted to test the theory very quickly. I encourage those who don’t have the funds to not give up.
Roz: Your technology is bought by consumers for fun and games and also by researchers wanting to do science – how do you strike that balance?
S: We are growing fast but not as fast as the developer community which is now in the thousands. We have to strike a balance between these people. 80% of the people who want to work with us – we have a screening committee – because there are so many. We ask they use our standard devices to work with us. For example, the Star Wars Force Trainer was a custom device because they were worried about it looking “star wars”.
Roz: What do you see as the future of NeuroSky and of wearables?
Stanley: I think the future is very bright and not just because I’m the CEO. Everyone is seeing wearable technologies coming on very strongly. We went from laptops to mobile devices and now we are in the wearable age. We are now doing a project integrated into baby onesies to investigate SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome). The onesie can measure if their heart is beating or not and then make a sound to wake them up so they don’t stop breathing. There are many opportunities if you make the technology right, cheap, and easy to use.
Roz asks a question about future developments.
Stanley: I can’t leak information ahead of my customer’s announcement. A lot of things are going on your wrist and on your face.
Roz: What has surprised you most on your journey with NeuroSky?
Stanley: I get surprised every day. I would say the necomimi ear carriers?
R: And that’s what you were a naysayer on originally?
S: Yes. I went to my daughter’s school BBQ and everyone called me the Neocomimi guy.
Audience question: Where is the limit on brainwave sensing?
S: You can actually sense a lot of things, but to product-ize the technology it has to work 100%. In the videos posted on the Youtube, they can achieve 70% percentage, but there is still 25% wrong. it depends on the purpose. If you want to develop a product for the consumer area, there are more limitations.
Audience question: Audience member asks question about Neocomimi ears and how they work.
S: When they fall down it means you’re bored. When they go back and forth it means you are highly engaged When the ears flips for 3 times, that means there’s a space
Audience question: Audience member asks about technology.
S: The technology sorts out the noise from the signal. In order to save power, filtering systems are built in before the signal comes in. Analogous to the noise cancelling earphones you wear on an airplane.
Audience question: Audience member asks about business model.
S: Primarily a B2B company, Neocomimi is the only product they sell directly to the consumer.
Audience question: what kind of frequency do you operate your chips??
S: For EEG and ECG devices, continue to improve them and add features that may or may not be relevant to all users. They have to keep up with mobile platforms so release new technology frequently.
Audience question: Do you foresee catering to the more DIY community?
S: Treat every customer and product the same way. If you are registered and have the SDK you can call us up for support. Try to limit the number of developers, though, because must offer optimal service to each customer. We add customer numbers very carefully to provide support. It takes lots of time to support a single person, so have to limit developers to some extent.
Audience member asks question about big data collection
S: The devices can collect data for government, for depression studies, for cardiovascular disease, etc. Governments can act on this data.
Audience asked about social psychological issues?
S: We get anonymous messages from people all over the world about how we are ethically wrong. There are two things we don’t do. One: Anything dealing with life-threatening situations. One example is that a hospital has published a paper without their permission about using their product to control the balance of 3 life sustaining medicals, and we ask them to stop.
Turned down the onesie project because it deals with life and death. They also don’t deal with the adult porn industry.
Audience member asks question about technology and consumerization.
S: Some consumers wear the Necomimi device every day. Although it’s fairly low tech, it’s high tech in terms of industrial and mechanical technology. It has to survive user’s everyday use, like bending the ear over.
Audience member asks question about how much of their work is talent driven.
S: Must strike a balance between talent and experience. A good design never beats a solid design. you need it to work consistently. Talent is very important. The last thing you want is to make a recall because it is very expensive
Audience member asks question about limitations due to power supply.
S: Yes, battery power is always a consideration for mobile products. For example, a respirator should be last for 7 days, a smartwatch shouldn’t have to be charged for months. That’s why smartwatches are a bit bigger. It’s hard to utilize a product that has to be charged every day or two. Ideally a product doesn’t demand that people change their behavior. Research user behavior before deciding how much energy you should provide.