If you've been to a comic or anime convention recently, you may have seen them. People walking around with fuzzy white cat ears on their heads. Cat ears that move. That may seem strange, but the really odd thing is that the movement of those ears isn't random. They're actually responding to the wearer's brainwaves. When the wearer is alert, the ears perk up. When the wearer is relaxed, they droop. And when the wearer is active and excited, they move constantly in a rapid motion and pretty much freak out anyone within sight of them.
A few weeks ago, I met up with the folks at Neurosky, the company behind the Necomimi cat ears and snagged a pair of my own to try out. I put them on and chatted with Neurosky vice president David Westendorf, who gave me a bit of history on this unique product.
GEEK: What is Neurosky?
DAVID: Neurosky is a biosensor company located in Silicon Valley that’s been in business for 8 years. We make biosensor semiconductors, which are basically chips that get built into toys, sports equipment, and education products.
GEEK: So you don’t exist just to make cat ears for cosplay geeks?
DAVID: No, we work with more than 400 universities on a number of research initiatives that develop tools to address things like alzheimers, traumatic brain injury, and post traumatic stress disorders. At the same time, we have an open API and our SDK is free, so we get a lot of pitches for a lot of weird products that makes use of the same brainwave technology.
GEEK: Like moving cat ears for humans.
DAVID: Right. And while every once in awhile we see something that might sell, we see a lot more weird stuff that will never see the commercial light of day. In the case of Necomimi, we looked at it and said “no way, that will never sell”. It was invented by a Japanese company. They sent us some sketches and we laughed. But here we are.
GEEK: Your technology has been used in toys before, like the recent Star Wars Force Trainer from Uncle Milton.
DAVID: Yes. But Mattel has probably been the most successful in using our technology. They have a product called Mindflex that has, for three Christmases in a row, sold out completely. Time magazine even added it to their list of the 100 best toys of all time, going all the way back to the early 1900s. It’s up there with Lego, Barbie, Play-Doh, and the Slinky.
GEEK: So am I just strapping a mini brain scanner to my head?
DAVID: The headset contains a sensor that is a medical/laboratory research grade EEG monitor that listens to a specific brainwave signal point called FP1, out of a total 512 signal points in the human head, that translates those signals into ear movements based on your mental activity and alertness.
GEEK: They’re fairly calm while I’m talking to you, but they’re up and alert. I noticed earlier that when I was laughing with a friend, they were going crazy. But I can tell you now, that I’m not one to normally go around wearing cat ears in public. Just what is your intended market focus?
DAVID: Of course, it was intended primarily for the cosplay audience, but we’ve found it goes beyond that. They’re being adopted by the body art and maker cultures in addition to being a cosplay accessory for people going to Comic-Con or anime conventions. There’s actually a poker culture that’s started to play with Necomimi ears on their heads. In the 5 card stud Indian Poker version, each player holds 4 cards that only they can see, they hold another card to their forehead that everyone but they can see. Based on the reactions of the ears of those around them, people can make judgements on who might have the better hand and who is bluffing. It comes down to trying to control your emotions and reactions, because the Necomimi ears may give you away. Same goes for regular poker.
GEEK: I’m trying to picture a bunch of guys sitting around a poker table, playing cards, smoking cigars, drinking beer, and wearing fuzzy white cat ears. Is there a chance we’ll see more options than the standard white?
DAVID: We’re creating a program now where developers can make variations of the cat ears within mechanical reason, such as antlers, devil’s horns, whatever. One of the funnier ones we saw at San Diego Comic-Con was a guy who had his face greasepainted yellow and green and wearing a Green Bay Packers football jersey. And he had cheese on the Necomimi ears.
As for us, we’ve been asked to do special variant editions of the ears at certain events, but I can tell you that we’ll be offering up a selection of new cat ear colors on Necomimi.com starting September 1st.