Could wearable tech read minds to sell ads?

Maker of brain-scanning tech says wearables like Google Glass could evolve to monitor brain signals and sell you toothpaste.


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She really wants a vacation for two in Malta. Google/YouTube screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

You're feeling a little depressed, aren't you? How about a bit of Hershey's chocolate to cheer you up?

Your stress indicators are off the charts. Did you know Marie's massage parlor is just a three-minutes walk from here?

These are just a couple of the conversations your wearable gadget could be having with you in the not too distant future.

Yes, they seem like one-way conversations. But in fact, it's perhaps not too far-fetched to think that wearables like Google Glass might one day be able to communicate with your brainwaves in order to give you what you really, really want. And need. And are desperate for but just don't know it.

There are already various companies developing technology that will scan your brain, process the information, discern your every last feeling -- good and bad -- and attempt to satisfy you in ways you didn't think possible.

There's Personal Neuro, for example, which has the meaningful tagline: "Your mind at your fingertips."

Personally, I wish my mind was elsewhere more often than not -- and certainly nowhere near my fingertips. Personal Neuro, on the other hand, believes that with its fingertips massaging your membranes, your life will take on a new hue.

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A rendering of Personal Neuro's Wearable Environment, featuring a brain-scanning gadget paired with a Glass-like device.Personal Neuro

You might, though, blanch a touch at some of the brain-thoughts offered by Personal Neuro founder Tony Gaitatzis.

Speaking to blog DeZeen, Gaitatzis said: "The potential is incredible and hypertargeted to the point where it is no longer advertising."

What is it then? It's your real life, that's what.

His company's PND Wearable monitors your mood, your stress levels, and other measurable aspects of your inner being. It uses electroencephalography (EEG) technology, which, says Gaitatzis, "has actually been around for about 100 years." The difference now is that advanced computing can bring a speed to the process that was unimaginable in 1914.

Gaitatzis believes that the information his wearable provides could be used by advertisers for location-based targeting of those wearing Google Glass.

In essence, if you put together emotional and health data with the real-time activity of a human being as monitored by Glass or some other such wearable, instant advertising could be infinitely precise -- not merely in terms of demographics and geography, but in terms of your exact mood at that moment.

After all, your Google Glass knows where you are, what you've been searching for, and, of course, the kind of pictures you've been taking. Add brain-scanning technology to that and the whole caboodle can become simply a part of you.

The question is whether you even need to know it's happening. The fact that your glasses recommend something that makes you feel better enhances your relationship with the gadget and the technology behind and within it.

For many humans, this will be enough.

Gaitatzis compares it to having your own personal trainer with you at all times, which is a peculiar, but not entirely unattractive notion.

Currently, the idea that a wearable might actually be an advertising platform could frighten some to the point of wondering whether that would be legal or ethical. The whole area of neuromarketing can inspire creepy fantasies of mental manipulation. And knowing that such things seem to be increasingly more feasible makes it worse.

Google currently forbids advertising on Google Glass. A company spokesperson told me: "As our Terms of Service makes clear, Glass doesn't allow for ads, nor does it allow Glassware (i.e., Glass applications) to transmit any user data to any advertising or marketing provider."

This is indeed made plain in Glass' terms of service: "You may not use user data from your Glassware for advertising purposes. You may not sell or transmit any user data received from your Glassware to a third-party ad network or service, data broker, or other advertising or marketing provider. For the avoidance of doubt, user data from the Glassware may not be used for Third-Party Ad Serving ('3PAS')."

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From meditation aid to retail-therapy assistance?Personal Neuro

With tech companies, though, terms of service can often have term limits. Suddenly they change. Suddenly, they're the opposite of what they were yesterday. And Google is, after all, an advertising company more than anything else.

Could it be, I wonder, that it prefers the technology to be adopted first and the dealing to occur a little later?

Moreover, here, for example, is a Google patent that talks about tracking people's gaze, in order to get inside the viewer's head.

This line from the patent is especially edifying: "A gazing-log tracking the identified items viewed by the user is generated." This would seem, essentially, to be a running record of everywhere you might be looking. Everywhere.

It's also hard to forget that Google is the company that openly looks forward to humans having microchips inserted into their heads.

Every piece of advertising is, in its way, manipulative. Once upon a time, there was fear about hidden persuaders who twisted your mind so that you would twist a certain brand's bottle-top.

But if Google Glass survives its current emotional blip to become a normal piece of wearable tech -- inspiring, no doubt, all manner of similar products -- it's inevitable that tracking moods, thoughts, feelings, and opinions in real time will be a core excitement for engineers and marketers.

Gaitatzis appears to feel little moral dilemma. He says his technology monitors the things you may not really know are happening. So what would be wrong with knowing that you have an antipathy to a particular store, knowing that you're near that store, and therefore offering you an ad from a direct competitor?

For him, there is one sacrosanct element of his wearables: "This technology can't read your thoughts, so that part of you is still very private."

The feelings that it measures he describes as simply a "reality check."

(Personal Neuro also says, in a promo video for the PND Wearable Environment, that "user-data security and privacy are two of our primary concerns, and both are aspects of this technology that we have put a lot of effort into." One hopes they've put a bit more effort into these concerns than they've put into the video itself -- it would no doubt yield interesting gaze-tracking logs for its participants.)

What fascinates me is how accurate it might all be. What if all the technology in the world isn't so good at discerning your true state of mind? Let's face it: friends, lovers, and psychologists routinely fail at this task.

I dream of the day when I am standing in the street and forcefully telling my Google Glass: "No, I don't want a bloody dulce de leche ice cream. I'm not hungry and it's 27 degrees and snowing, dummkopf."

 

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