Imagine you are sitting on your couch at home with your smart glasses on and you think to yourself “Does Nike have any offers running on their Air collection?” and immediately your smart glasses light up and a pop-up message on the screen informs you that there is a 30% discount on the Nike Air collection. You scroll through the images of shoes in augmented reality and decide on a pair that you like and try them on virtually. While trying on the shoes you realize that you’re hungry but don’t want a heavy meal. The next thing you know, you are served with ads from Burger King, Starbucks and A&W about snacking items available on their menu right in front of you. Just what you needed! You then proceed to order a Beyond Meat burger from A&W and pay for it all while just thinking about it and continue shopping for shoes. This is a small glimpse into the possible capabilities of an emerging technology called Brain-Computer Interface.
What are Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCI)?
Brain-Computer Interfaces also known as Brain-Machine Interfaces or Direct Neural Interfaces are computer-based systems that acquire brain signals, analyze them and relay them to external devices like IT systems or wearables to translate them into appropriate actions.
There are three types of BCIs: invasive, non-invasive and semi-invasive. Currently, this technology is being implemented to assist people with motor or sensory impairments. Although invasive BCIs in the form of brain implants are most commonly used to treat patients, researchers are working on creating less invasive or non-invasive BCIs. Bin He, Professor and Head of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University states “There have been major advances in mind controlled robotic devices using brain implants. It’s excellent science. But non-invasive is the ultimate goal. Advances in neural decoding and the practical utility of non-invasive robotic arm control will have major implications on the eventual development of non-invasive neurorobotics.”
Current developments in BCI
Although this technology has been around for quite some time in the medical field to treat people with disabilities and spinal cord injuries, other industries such as marketing, gaming, education and smart transportation are now slowly recognizing the benefits of adopting BCIs.
Elon Musk’s brain-computer Startup Neuralink aims to help people with severe brain injuries and other serious health conditions by using BCI. However, Musk’s ultimate goal with Neuralink is to enable the human race to compete with AI.
In his recent update on the progress at Neuralink, Musk provided a live a demo of the functionality of the BCI device being developed with the help of pigs that had/ have been implanted with the device. With the Neuralink implant, people with limited or no motor functions can type and control computers with their thoughts. Musk said that the device “is like a Fitbit in your skull with tiny wires”. He claims that in the long-term, with a second implant it will be possible to restore motor functions of someone with severe spinal chord injuries. The Neuralink team members also stated that in the future the device will be capable of providing visual experiences to people who suffer from blindness as well as people with normal vision. They also claimed that the device can tap into the creative potential of an individual to create mental artistry as well as store and retrieve memories which Musk admits sounds like an episode straight out of Black Mirror. Ultimately, the device may be capable of detecting an array of emotions like happiness, anxiety and depression.
The Tesla CEO said that with Neuralink, he aims to create a human and AI symbiosis whereby people can connect with their digital AI selves. He also said that the technology will enable telepathic communication between humans whereby uncompressed thoughts can be communicated seamlessly without speech or any external devices.
With this said, it is possible to imagine a future where people can exchange thoughts and creative ideas telepathically. This means, it will become increasingly important for brands to offer excellent customer service and shopping experiences as consumers of the future may very well be able to replay memories and share them with their friends and family through telepathic communication and can become virtual promoters of a brand.
Neuralink’s progress in the field of BCI opens the door to an exciting new dimension where human brains are connected to all their digital devices. A future were people Google items and browse social media by thinking and stream music directly to the brain. A future where you can get ads straight to your brain depending on your current thoughts or mood and if the device senses that you’re working or need to focus, it can block ads, phone calls and text messages.
Facebook is currently working on creating non-invasive BCI in the form of wearable technology to redefine the AR/VR experience as we know it. It aims to use fully non-invasive BCI as an input solution for smart glasses to create a seamless integration of the real and the virtual world.
MindX, a US based Startup is working on creating a “look and think” interface through smart- glasses by combining neurotechnology, augmented reality and artificial intelligence. The CEO of MindX, Julia Brown said she is particularly interested in the possibilities that BCI will bring for visual search.
Imagine looking at a stranger’s dress at a pub and wondering where she got that beautiful piece from and the image of the dress along with the price and brand’s information immediately pops up on your smart-glasses!
Neurable is another such company looking to make everyday BCIs available to the masses in the form of headphones. It aims to make computer interfaces more intuitive to improve customer experience and break free from the limits of keyboards, touchscreens and voice assistants. Neurable’s CEO, Dr. Alcaide gave a demo of how the company is building Augmented Reality experiences where people can control objects and perform actions with just their thoughts. He then revealed Neurable Analytics that will help track the intent and emotions of consumers which will give unbiased cognitive insights that have the potential to eliminate the need for customer surveys. He explains the same at 10:44 in the demo video. Neurable aims to bring insights and Brain-Computer Interfaces together to create a seamless and natural AR experience for consumers.
So, how does the future of customer experience and marketing look like with BCIs?
Zero UI is a concept that has been around for quite some time now in the form of Voice Assistants like Siri, Google Home and Alexa whereby customers use speech to do a quick online search, place orders or make appointments. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. In the future, with the help of BCIs, users will get customized ads, immersive brand experiences straight to their brains depending on the individual’s thoughts, likes, dislikes and location thus removing any barriers between the physical and the virtual world. They will be able to place an order with an online store through their digital assistants through just a thought.
Marketers will be able to harness even more personalized data about their customers than they can at present. BCIs will give marketers the ability to track customer journeys, sentiments and preferences on a more microscopic level and send tailor-made ads and experiences to increase sales straight to their brains or wearable devices. For instance, if a customer is browsing for lipsticks online and likes a shade but is not sure how it will look on her, the BCI-powered smart-glasses can identify her thoughts and show her a picture of her face with the same shade of lipstick. If she likes it, she can complete the purchase with her thoughts, no buttons, no clicks, just a seamless shopping experience.
Ted wants to go on a trip to Bali with his fiancé and he wants to book a villa with a private pool at a luxury hotel but he wants to get a glimpse of how the place will feel once he is there. In the future, with the help of a BCI enabled smart device, he will be able to experience the entire property in virtual reality with just a thought. No need to go and check out a YouTube video or go through tons of guest reviews. Experience it and decide for yourself!
Brain-Computer Interfaces will become our gateway to the metaverse as discussed by well- known futurist Cathy Hackl in this article. BCIs will change the way consumers interact with brands and products through devices and will redefine customer experience as we know it. Marketers will have to use creative ways to engage with consumers while leveraging technologies like virtual, augmented and mixed realities to create tailor-made experiences for each customer.
As customers find themselves overwhelmed with an increasing number of options now and in the future, brands that will adopt emerging technologies like BCIs and haptics in combination with AR/VR can provide the immersive experience that will differentiate them from the crowd and make customers stick around. To be honest, it wouldn’t be a surprise if companies like Neuralink, Facebook and Neurable who are already at the forefront of this disruptive technology emerge as the biggest players in the BCI ad business in the future.
Ethical issues surrounding BCIs
As fascinating as these developments are, it’s not difficult to soon begin worrying about the darker possibilities of BCIs. Wherever there is consumer data, companies are waiting to monetize on them. BCI technology may be cutting edge, but the data it collects is likely to plumb into numerous existing business models that involve consumers sharing vast stores of their data, some of it sensitive, with a company that then profits from it. Access to brainwaves can also expose our brains to hackers. Companies at present can access data such as our age, gender, preferences, buying habits and location but in the future, with the help of BCIs, they will be able to access our thoughts, dreams, desires and emotions.
Speaking to the New York Times about the recent interest that large companies have been showing in brain-machine research Rafael Yuste, a neurobiologist at Columbia University said “..imagine that writing to the brain is possible. And there are lower-tier versions of brain-writing gizmos that, in exchange for their free use, occasionally make suggestions directly to your brain. How will you know if your impulses are your own, or if an algorithm has stimulated that sudden craving for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream or Gucci handbags?” further highlighting the issues that BCIs bring with them.
In such cases, it will become crucial for companies to encrypt data end-to-end and use sensitive brain data responsibly to avoid disappointing customers and compromising personal thought patterns. Businesses will have to become more transparent, ethical and accountable in order to leverage these emerging technologies in the future.
Specialist, IT Service Management | Air Canada
Past Editor: Future of Marketing Magazine
Graduate: Schulich Master of Marketing Program