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This is your brain on video games, ads

It may sound like science fiction, but one company is helping market researchers track how the brain responds to content like games and ads. Photos: Scanning brain waves

Developing a first-person shooter video game that can rival the genre's top-selling hits like Call of Duty is always a long shot.

So game maker THQ tried an unusual research method last year to evaluate people's early emotional response to its in-development shooter game Frontlines. 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-theme game. 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 video game 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 clue."

Monterey, Calif.-based EmSense, for "emotion sensing," was founded in 2004 by former students (and one of their dads) 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."

The set-up for the system is relatively simple. All the company needs to test a subject is a laptop, headphones and a headset that can transmit data wirelessly to software.

This kind of technology, of course, 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 video game, for example, can run into the tens of millions of dollars. What's worse is that few video 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 backend 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 who is an EmSense co-founder. The company has a total of six co-founders 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 will test an early-in-development game, or "pre-alpha," by creating a minute-long CGI video that captures the essence of the game. Showing the clip to a small audience, THQ gets 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 play.

THQ struck a deal with EmSense last year; and with the technology, the company gets insight on play 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."