Culture

I had my brain scanned by a computer and all I got was this lousy T-shirt

Clothing brand Uniqlo has a new feature: a brain-wave-reading device that will pick a T-shirt based on your mood. But does it work? CNET's Nic Healey decided to investigate.

Uniqlo

Here's an odd confession: I love shopping for clothes, but only online. Show me the eBay app and I'm in heaven, happily ordering bolo ties and pocket squares until the wee small hours -- or until I run out of wine, whichever comes first.

But put me in an actual brick-and-mortar store and I'll wander around in a vaguely desultory fashion, frowning while I pick up a few odd items and then high-tailing it out of there as quickly as possible. For some reason, when presented with clothing I can physically try on, I lose any capacity to choose from a variety of styles or fashions. (As an aside, this is why I have a spare room full of clothing that's perfect in every single way, except the part where it fits me. The struggle is real, people.)

So when I heard that Uniqlo, fine global purveyor of affordable fashion that it is, had a potential solution for my dilemma I quickly found myself outside the Sydney branch at 7:30 a.m. waiting to try out UMood.

Uniqlo says the UMood is the first of its kind. It's a brain-computer-interface headset that promises to match your clothing to your mood. Given that it was 7:30 in the morning, I was expecting the UMood to suggest something a little on the "dark, depressed and under-caffeinated" side, but I was still quite keen to give it a go.

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Leave the tags on. Luke Lancaster/CNET

UMood, which is about to embark on a tour of Australia, is more of an installation than a device. You sit down in front of a screen wearing the brain-computer-interface (BCI) headset. You get shown a series of images and videos, showing things like people lying in hammocks, storm clouds and dogs, and the UMood analyses your neurological responses as you view them. From there, an algorithm matches your response to a number of T-shirt designs before narrowing your response down to a single suggested shirt.

Uniqlo had Phil Harris, a "consumer neuroscientist" and honorary professor at the University of Melbourne, on hand to explain the UMood.

"The device essentially understands how closely a customer is resonating with a given mood and then uses that reading to pick the ideal t-shirt for a customer at that time," according to Harris.

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Comedian Ben Law tries the UMood while Phil Harris explains how it works. Uniqlo

The headset itself is the Mindwave from Neurosky, but the underlying algorithms come from a Japan-based company called, rather awesomely, Dentsu Science Jam. Fun consumer applications for BCI headsets have slowly been growing in popularity (exhibit A: the mind-controlled shark balloon). They have more serious applications as well, though, helping crime investigators get details from witnesses, and even improving the quality of life for people with paralysis. But this is fashion, and therefore about as serious as it gets.

Harris says the UMood quantifies five different states of mind: interest, like, stress, concentration and drowsiness. The electroencephalography data collected by the UMood headset is then graded on a scale against these states, after which it recommends a T-shirt through a points-based system to best match that mood.

There is, of course, a very human factor: Both the images and shirt designs have had their emotional qualities determined by a panel of regular consumers. "It's survey work," Harris explains. "A mass of people have been shown the designs and the moods that could be linked to them, and then asked to score each T-shirt on those moods."

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Nic Healey/CNET

Given that there are 600 different designs available, starting at AU$20 (about $14, £9.50) this is nearly as impressive as the headset.

So what was it like to use? Well, assuming that sitting in the UMood in front a crowd of random people while cameras record everything can be considered a normal baseline, I was in an adventurous mood, according to my brain waves.

From there, a series of shirt designs popped up, one of which I was moderately taken with. After some quick deliberation, UMood suggested a blue shirt with Iron Man on it. It's actually hard to imagine a shirt I would be less likely to wear. It kind of looked like something an uncool 14-year-old would wear to a party which, I confess in retrospect, would actually be quite adventurous of me. Perhaps UMood knows me better than I thought.

I actually ended up walking away with my third choice of the four short-listed designs because the first two weren't actually in the store (but were available online). Say hello to stylized Thor. It's something a slightly cooler 14-year-old might wear.

While UMood didn't quite pick the perfect item for me, it's undoubtedly a very clever and fun thing to have in-store and Harris reckons it was only a matter of time before a store did something like this.

"This is just the tip of the iceberg, and showcases how neuroscience is influencing how major brands now operate and market themselves."

UMood certainly isn't the first time retailers have gone high-tech for consumer engagement. Smart technology is making its way into many facets of shopping, from the cart to the dressing room. But this is the first time we've seen something that wants to get inside your mind to help you look great.

As for me and my Thor shirt...well, regifting is perfectly fine, right?