MindMaze Projects Your Smiles, Frowns On Face Of Your VR Avatar

In virtual reality games you can choose an avatar, leave your couch potato body behind, and appear instead as a rugged explorer or a monster roaring to defend its turf.

Pretty soon, you might be able to let your emotions show through, even as you transform outwardly into a fantasy character. One company trying to make this happen is MindMaze, a “neuro-VR” company playing at the interfaces between machines and the human brain. The company says it has found a way to map your own determined grimace or happy grin onto the face of your graphic alter ego.

MindMaze announced Wednesday that it has developed a thin foam insert for VR headsets called MASK, which contains sensors that pick up electrical impulses from the face. The system then interprets the signals to reproduce the wearer’s smile or scowl on a game avatar’s mug.

That element of “immersive emotion” will help build a market for virtual reality games and social VR experiences, MindMaze is betting. The company, based in Lausanne, Switzerland with a U.S. headquarters in San Francisco, is looking for partners in the virtual reality and augmented reality game industry to incorporate the feature into their products. MindMaze says its combination of hardware and software can work with any VR headset, whether it’s attached to a smartphone, a game console, or a high-powered PC, the company says.

MASK might seem to be a big pivot for MindMaze, whose first product was a system designed to help stroke victims to recover the use of a paralyzed hand. But that treatment technology, MindMotion Pro, is also based on a mix between neurobiology and virtual reality.

The MindMotion Pro system is designed to sort of trick the brain into believing it can regain control of the impaired hand—resulting in greater efforts by the patient. While the patient is moving a healthy right hand, for example, a screen in front of the patient shows the injured left hand executing the movement instead.

To stake a claim to the consumer entertainment market, MindMaze is now pitching its technology as a major fix for what it sees as VR’s sophomore year doldrums. The first big batch of VR headsets became widely available to consumers last year, but VR faces the classic chicken-and-egg problem seen with the adoption of new formats, going back to early televisions and video players. People won’t buy the machines in droves until there’s enough content to consume, but content developers hesitate to invest until a big paying audience gets established. Adding emotion to VR experiences will catalyze the sector, MindMaze CEO and founder Tej Tadi predicts.

Tech companies including Facebook and AltspaceVR are already striving to make social VR experiences seem more like real interactions with people we recognize, by creating avatars personalized to look like participants. And they’re also working on duplicating their facial expressions or otherwise expressing emotions.

AltspaceVR already hosts everything from reunions of friends to video viewing parties and performance events in its virtual venues. Facebook, which acquired high-end VR headset maker Oculus for $2 billion in 2014, has a long-term goal to move its social communities into virtual space.

In October, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg demonstrated the company’s progress on that front at the Oculus Connect event in San Jose. A Zuckerberg avatar bantered with a smiling, laughing, hand-waving avatar representation of Michael Booth, head of Facebook’s social VR team.

The avatars still looked like simple cartoons; their movements were blocky; and they displayed only a handful of facial expressions. But Zuckerberg showed that Facebook’s vast resources are leading to the kind of “emotional immersion” technology that MindMaze wants to be part of.

Image credit: Depositphotos

Bernadette Tansey is Xconomy's San Francisco Editor. You can reach her at btansey@xconomy.com. Follow @Tansey_Xconomy

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