Disney wants a wearable for the brain to be the next hit gadget

Oct 06, 2015

You know that cute, round robot from the upcoming Star Wars movie? The one that sold out on Amazon last month, just 13 minutes after it went on sale? Sphero, the startup behind the free-rolling, commercialized version of the adorable droid, BB-8, has been developing robotic toys for years. But the company really took off after the Walt Disney Co. selected it to participate in its inaugural, three-month accelerator program for startups for last year. (Snagging none other than Disney CEO Bob Iger as its mentor and releasing a toy tied to one of the most anticipated movies in decades does wonders.)

On Wednesday, the Mouse House will graduate its second class of startups—a group of 10 incubated companies that have been working out of a large, open space in its Southern California headquarters. Among the most promising of the bunch is Emotiv, a startup that makes wearables for your brain.

Say what? It's not that far out, says Tan Le, CEO of the San Francisco-based startup. In fact, Emotiv has developed a headset that tracks brain patterns and allows users to control virtual and physical objects with thought.

"Physical training is something people understand, but the notion of exercising and training and measuring your brain is a very unusual concept," says Le. "I think it's a natural step."

The company wants to be "the connector of consumers to their brain." Its initial product, which sells for $399, doesn't do much, though its spider-like, wireless headset looks right out of the future: it records your brainwaves and translates them into "meaningful data." There is also an accompanying mobile app, but for the moment it only lets you track your brain activity. (The company does have several other demo apps that showcase some of the headset's ability to control virtual and physical objects, though these are not yet commercially available.) What's next, though, is much more exciting—especially if Disney gives Emotiv the kind of love it has showered on Sphero.

Emotiv's technology and consumer-centric neuroheadset could be used to let users control and interact with virtual worlds or video games using mere thought. That could have applications for branded Disney games and all sorts of new experiences at the company's theme parks.

"When you realize that something is connected to you and it understands how you're feeling, it creates another layer of interactivity that doesn't exist right now," says Le. "The underlying technology, the ability to control things [with your brain], is so synergistic to what Disney is doing."

According to Disney, all of the startups that graduated from the first year of its accelerator program, which is "powered" by an outside incubator called Techstars, have either raised capital, been acquired or become profitable since participating in the program. In addition to incubating the companies at its headquarters for three months and matching them with an internal mentor, Disney also makes a modest investment in each startup.

Once the three-month-long program is completed, Emotiv will return to its headquarters in San Francisco. (It also has a development office in Australia and manufactures the headsets in Vietnam.) But its relationship with Disney could be just beginning. Eventually, Emotiv's Le would like to push a licensing model in which companies pay to use her headset and accompanying algorithms and software. Or, if Disney (dis) wants the technology all to itself, it could just buy Emotiv. (It's certainly got the cash to do so.) Either way, if BB-8's commercialization is any indication, it's likely we'll be seeing some kind of Emotiv-powered, Disney-branded product or experience sometime soon.

For more about Sphero, watch this Fortune video:

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