When Scandinavian engineers launched their crowdfunding campaign for “No More Woof” in December 2013, they talked a good game.
They would build a wearable gadget that you could slip onto your dog’s head, which would read its doggy brainwaves and translate its mental state into human language. They’d do this by applying EEG brain-scanning technology (standard stuff for humans) to our furry friends, thus detecting neural patterns that correlate to sentiments such as “I’m tired,” “I’m hungry,” “I’m excited,” and “Who are you?” So said the Indiegogo page put forward by a group called the Nordic Society for Invention and Discovery (NSID). They promised to deliver by May 2014.
Publications around the world went wild for this idea. The coverage from ABC News is a typical example of the breathless enthusiasm: “Talking Dog Device Ready to Hit Market Soon.” Some of the many other examples come from Mashable, Engadget, CNET, the South China Morning Post, Fast Company, and Time.
It may not shock you, savvy reader, to learn that the campaign never delivered. The story of No More Woof sums up the current state of neurotech products intended for consumers (as opposed to devices built for the medical establishment): the ideas are audacious, exciting, and often infeasible.
While crowdfunding failures have become a sadly routine part of Internet culture, NSID distinguished itself by abysmal communication with its backers. As months and then years ticked by, it posted zero updates to its Indiegogo page—until last week, when I contacted the company. Also last week, it finally responded to comments like these that had been filling up its campaign page and Facebook page:
The update posted last week offers all backers a refund. A few days ago the NSID also took down its site, which had prominently featured the doggy device, although it didn't take down the dedicated No More Woof site.
No More Woof shows the particular perils of trying to crowdfund neurotech gadgets. Neurotech is a hot new area for startups, since the gear needed to read out brain patterns and to electrically stimulate the brain only recently became cheap and mobile. And because everybody wants Jedi powers.
The standard EEG tech used for decades by neurologists required slathering the patient’s head with conductive gel, sticking electrodes all over the scalp, and watching out for the tangle of wires that tethered the patient to a computer. Now researchers and startups alike are integrating wireless “dry electrodes” into headbands, earpieces, bike helmets, and caps.
(Similarly, a form of brain stimulation called tDCS uses scalp electrodes to send a tiny bit of current into the brain. With cheap electrodes and simple electronics, enterprising DIYers are conducting home experiments and starting companies that try to boost brainpower in various ways.)
But just because the tech is now accessible, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to build a gadget for brain-reading or mind-control.
Other crowdfunded neurotech products have raised the ire of their backers with years-long delays while they struggle to get their products working and to figure out mass production. Kickstarter backers have been waiting for more than two years for Aurora, a headband that uses EEG to monitor sleep patterns and light cues to encourage lucid dreaming. The similar Kokoon headphones are a year overdue. The Melon headband, which used EEG and an app to help people learn to focus, did finally make it to its backers’ mailboxes, but then the startup was acquired and the new parent company stopped supporting the product.
While No More Woof’s campaign page made it clear that the tech was a work in progress, it also made the remaining engineering challenges sound quite manageable. The EEG signals were easy to identify, it said, because dogs’ brains aren’t very complex. “The challenges we are facing using EEG on pets are a matter of placement for best comfort and how to identify the clearest signal when attaching the device on fur,” it said.
Around the original delivery date of May 2014, No More Woof sent an email to its backers telling them that the project was delayed, that the engineers were busy in the lab working on usability and reliability issues, but that they couldn’t estimate a new shipping date. The email offered backers a refund, but said the No More Woof team hoped they’d stick around. According to the backers I spoke with, that was the last communication they received until last week.
When I contacted NSID, Hannah Mazetti told me that the company spent more money than it raised on the No More Woof project. She also said that NSID shifted attention to other projects and basically forgot that it had promised to build a canine mind-reader. “We missed a lot of emails, so we’re really sorry about that,” Mazetti says. “We had a restructuring at the company, and we had an absent-minded engineer in charge.”
Mazetti is referring to Per Cromwell, one of the cofounders of NSID. He explained in an email that his work on No More Woof was derailed by both the economic realities of manufacturing and difficulties in attaching the headset to dogs. “It is not easy to fasten ANYTHING on a dogs head,” Cromwell writes, with the exasperation of one who has clearly tried fastening many things. He’s also clearly contrite: “I’m just an inventor and scientist. With a lot of flaws in communication and business skills,” he says.
One backer I spoke with brings an expert perspective to the situation. CJ Cornell is an investor and academic who studies entrepreneurship and crowdfunding, and he’s also a doting dog-owner. The campaign left him with “a bad taste in my mouth,” Cornell says, but only because NSID didn’t communicate with backers. He isn’t bothered by the fact that the campaign failed to deliver, and doesn’t think others should be either. “Unfortunately crowdfunding has evolved into ‘pretail,’ and now the expectation is that you’re buying a product,” he says. “That’s a shame, because it should be more about investing in an idea.”
NSID’s Cromwell maintains that No More Woof’s idea was worth investing in, because it was based on sound science. He says the mind-reading EEG tech wasn’t the problem. But while it may be true that it’s easy to use standard EEG equipment to pick up canine brain signals and classify them into simple categories like “hunger” or “excitement,” a wearable EEG system isn’t much good if it can’t be worn.
That difficulty doesn’t just apply to brain gear for animals. Human heads vary (I, for one, recently discovered that I have exceedingly high electrical resistance in my scalp—a thick head), and so do their brain signals. Collecting that data from people while they’re moving around (as opposed to sitting still in some medical or scientific context) brings additional challenges. And human abilities to use consumer-style brain gear correctly will vary as well.
According to Brooklyn-based startup OpenBCI, the transition from cool idea to practical gadget is where many neurotech campaigns founder. “It’s really hard to take EEG and make something that’s useful in a day-to-day situation,” says cofounder Joel Murphy. “But that’s what everyone wants, and that’s the promise of a lot of these commercial products.”[shortcode ieee-pullquote quote=""People are too different. It's really hard to take a cookie-cutter approach and make a product for BCI."" float="right" expand=1]
OpenBCI makes open-source hardware for brain-computer interfaces (hence the name), helping makers and researchers build gear to try out their ideas. Since 2014 its founders have been selling circuit boards to handle the data that streams off electrodes, and more recently they added headgear to hold the electrodes to the scalp. The startup has done two Kickstarter campaigns (launched in 2013 and 2015), both of which had about a 6-month delay in shipping.
But cofounder Conor Russomanno says they were successful in delivering their products because they were selling something realistic: A tool for tinkerers, not a gadget that promises the customer a complete experience. “Most of the time what sells is some type of commercial app that promises to improve your productivity or benefit your life,” he says. “Unfortunately, people are too different. It’s really hard to take a cookie-cutter approach and make a product for BCI.”
OpenBCI’s mission is to support the brain hackers who are trying to crack the problem of mobile, wearable neurotech. Maybe one of their DIYers will take on the canine challenge—the No More Woof team told me they’d be delighted if someone else (and someone “with better funding”) would continue their work.
Until then, you’ll have to figure out if your dog is excited the old-fashioned way: By looking for a wagging tail.
Eliza Strickland is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum, where she covers AI, biomedical engineering, and other topics. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University.