Immersion Tracks Oxytocin Levels to Improve Entertainment. Critics Fear It's Going Too Far.

Sam Blake

Sam primarily covers entertainment and media for dot.LA. Previously he was Marjorie Deane Fellow at The Economist, where he wrote for the business and finance sections of the print edition. He has also worked at the XPRIZE Foundation, U.S. Government Accountability Office, KCRW, and MLB Advanced Media (now Disney Streaming Services). He holds an MBA from UCLA Anderson, an MPP from UCLA Luskin and a BA in History from University of Michigan. Email him at samblake@dot.LA and find him on Twitter @hisamblake

Immersion Tracks Oxytocin Levels to Improve Entertainment. Critics Fear It's Going Too Far.

Paul Zak spent over two decades developing the science beneath his company, Immersion. His tastemaker software aims to measure and predict how people respond to music, movies and other experiences by tracking their brain activity through a smartwatch or fitness tracker.

With a newly launched software-as-a-service platform, his mind-reading tool is now available to the masses for as little as $199 a month.


But the wide release of a technology that purports to know people better than they know themselves is worrying to some, who say it could limit artistic expression, perpetuate unconscious biases and, in the wrong hands, subject unwilling people to spying and manipulation.

Zak's tool measures emotional resonance, or what he calls "immersion." It uses sensors to track attention levels and infer brain levels of oxytocin, the so-called "love hormone" known for its association with bonding that works as a neurotransmitter. The sensors monitor how a person's brain responds to a given stimulus, moment by moment. Software generates a readout that provides real-time feedback potentially useful for everything from testing Hollywood audiences to understanding what resonates during a work presentation.

Through sensors Immersion measures someone's pulse, which Zak says is correlated with attention levels.

"Attention is the necessary condition; immersion is the sufficient condition," he added, noting that the latter is measured by oxytocin: a naturally occurring chemical in the brain that, he says, "is why people cry at movies when the boy kisses the girl."

\u200bPaul Zak

Paul Zak directs Claremont Graduate University's Center for Neuroeconomic Studies

Zak, who directs Claremont Graduate University's Center for Neuroeconomic Studies, researches how brain activity corresponds to decision-making. His papers have been cited by academic publications over 15,000 times. He is not without his critics, though, some of whom have argued that oxytocin, in addition to correlating with feelings like empathy and trust, can also correlate with envy and tribalism.

As wearable sensors improved over time, Zak says he became able to map the data gathered by noninvasive, everyday items like smartwatches back to the brain-activity readouts he's gathered for years in his lab from blood-draws and expensive medical equipment.

"We created the first democratized platform for neuroscience where anybody could measure what the brain loves in real time," he said. And with this week's release of his company's SaaS platform, just about anyone can use it.

After three years working in stealth, Immersion ramped up its marketing right around the onset of the pandemic. The company began as a service focused primarily on helping entertainment companies create better content.

It has worked with a handful of Hollywood studios, including Paramount and Warner Bros, to help produce movie trailers, determine slates for the upcoming fall TV lineup and ascertain whether during lockdown people preferred to watch new or familiar content.

Zak said Immersion can predict hits with over 80% accuracy. Music streamer Pandora has used the service to study which songs listeners would enjoy, he said.

The idea of using mind-interpreting software on the masses to shape what we experience offers intriguing possibilities, but some say it could also amplify biases and distort creative output by favoring content that scores well on brain-activity metrics.

Traditional focus groups rely on surveys to gather feedback. When people fill out questionnaires on what they liked and disliked about a given experience, they have time to counteract their subconscious biases that may instinctively cause them to recoil from certain concepts they find unappealing, such as homosexuality, said Patrick Lin, director of Ethics + Emerging Sciences Group at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo. Relying on real-time brain activity, though, doesn't give people the opportunity to self-correct for those biases.

"You can hide that in a survey, but you might not be able to hide it from a technology like this," said Lin. That could skew productions away from edgier or more provocative fare that Lin says can be useful for dislodging society from its comfort zones.

But to Zak, being able to measure how people really feel offers tremendous potential for improving and even lengthening lives. He is in talks with smartwatch makers to include Immersion on their devices out of the box. The reason someone would want that, he said, is to learn from their data what frustrates them and what makes them happy.

"Then you can begin to curate people's lives for greater happiness," he said. "And we know that individuals who are happier live longer."

Immersion

When the world went remote, film production slowed down and face-to-face contact dwindled, and other kinds of businesses began looking to Immersion for help. Companies needed ways to monitor the effectiveness of their attempts to adapt to a distributed world where social cues like body language were no longer available and surveys were unreliable. Zak said he has signed on three of the five FAANG companies as clients to help them make meetings and employee trainings more engaging.

Immersion is designed so that, in these situations, employers can only match data to specific employees if they have consented to having their identities revealed. Zak said Immersion does not store any personally identifiable information online, and noted that his company has worked with European firms and was deemed compliant with the EU's strict data privacy-protection laws.

But going deeper into workers' minds not only raises privacy questions but could also make employees' lives more difficult.

One could easily imagine unscrupulous companies using the technology to squeeze out every last drop of employee productivity, said Michael Karanicolas, executive director of the UCLA Institute for Technology, Law and Policy. He pointed to news reports of Amazon employees struggling to find time to use the bathroom during their shifts as an example of the danger.

When asked about potential ethical concerns, Zak emphasized his company's policy of requiring consent before people's brain activity is tracked.

Zak has been a trailblazer in the field of neuroeconomics. He has received grants totaling over $1 million from the U.S. Department of Defense and Intelligence community to research what motivates people to make decisions and take action. His 2011 TED talk on oxytocin has nearly 2 million views. He was even once named one of the 10 sexiest geeks by WIRED Magazine.

Zak formed Immersion when the university where his lab is based grew uncomfortable with commercial applications of his research, he said.

In March this year, his company landed a $1.7 million seed investment led by Silicon Valley billionaire investor Tim Draper.

"The real arc of my professional life has been to create technologies to help people live more fulfilled and happier lives," he said. "And so this is really the culmination for me of 25 years of my life."

Yet with his company's lofty goals comes the possibility, as with any technology, of unintended consequences.

"These mindreading technologies are going to chip away at the last fig leaf we have," said Lin, "–the privacy inside our own head."

Editor's note: This story was updated to clarify role of oxytocin

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Tinder is altering dating profile creation with its new AI-powered Photo Selector feature, designed to help users choose their most appealing dating profile pictures. This innovative tool employs facial recognition technology to curate a set of up to 10 photos from the user's device, streamlining the often time-consuming process of profile setup. To use the feature, users simply take a selfie within the Tinder app and grant access to their camera roll. The AI then analyzes the photos based on factors like lighting and composition, drawing from Tinder's research on what makes an effective profile picture.

The selection process occurs entirely on the user's device, ensuring privacy and data security. Tinder doesn't collect or store any biometric data or photos beyond those chosen for the profile, and the facial recognition data is deleted once the user exits the feature. This new tool addresses a common pain point for users, as Tinder's research shows that young singles typically spend about 25 to 33 minutes selecting a profile picture. By automating this process, Tinder aims to reduce profile creation time and allow users to focus more on making meaningful connections.

In wholly unrelated news, Elon Musk has announced plans to relocate the headquarters of X (formerly Twitter) and SpaceX from California to Texas. SpaceX will move from Hawthorne to Starbase, while X will shift from San Francisco to Austin. Musk cited concerns about aggressive drug users near X's current headquarters and a new California law regarding gender identity notification in schools as reasons for the move. This decision follows Musk's previous relocation of Tesla's headquarters to Texas in 2021.

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Los Angeles, has a thriving startup ecosystem with numerous accelerators, incubators, and programs designed to support and nurture new businesses. These programs provide a range of services, including funding, mentorship, workspace, networking opportunities, and strategic guidance to help entrepreneurs develop their ideas and scale their companies.


Techstars Los Angeles

Techstars is a global outfit with a chapter in Los Angeles that opened in 2017. It prioritizes local companies but will fund some firms based outside of LA.

Location: Culver City

Type of Funding: Pre-seed, early stage

Focus: Industry Agnostic

Notable Past Companies: StokedPlastic, Zeno Power


Grid110

Grid110 offers no-cost, no-equity programs for entrepreneurs in Los Angeles, including a 12-week Residency accelerator for early-stage startups, an Idea to Launch Bootcamp for pre-launch entrepreneurs, and specialized programs like the PledgeLA Founders Fund and Friends & Family program, all aimed at providing essential skills, resources, and support to help founders develop and grow their businesses.

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Idealab

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Plug In South LA

Plug In South LA is a tech accelerator program focused on supporting and empowering Black and Latinx entrepreneurs in the Los Angeles area. The 12-week intensive program provides early-stage founders with mentorship, workshops, strategic guidance, potential pilot partnerships, grant funding, and networking opportunities to help them scale their businesses and secure investment.

Location: Los Angeles

Type of Funding: Pre-seed, seed

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Cedars-Sinai Accelerator

The Cedars-Sinai Accelerator is a three-month program based in Los Angeles that provides healthcare startups with $100,000 in funding, mentorship from over 300 leading clinicians and executives, and access to Cedars-Sinai's clinical expertise and resources. The program aims to transform healthcare quality, efficiency, and care delivery by helping entrepreneurs bring their innovative technology products to market, offering participants dedicated office space, exposure to a broad network of healthcare entrepreneurs and investors, and the opportunity to pitch their companies at a Demo Day.

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Type of Funding: Seed, early stage, convertible note

Focus: Healthcare, Device, Life Sciences

Notable Past Companies: Regard, Hawthorne Effect


MedTech Innovator

MedTech Innovator is the world's largest accelerator for medical technology companies, based in Los Angeles, offering a four-month program that provides selected startups with unparalleled access to industry leaders, investors, and resources without taking equity. The accelerator culminates in showcase events and competitions where participating companies can win substantial non-dilutive funding, with the program having a strong track record of helping startups secure FDA approvals and significant follow-on funding.

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KidsX

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Disney Accelerator

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Type of Funding: Growth stage

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Notable Past Companies: Epic Games, BRIT + CO, CAMP


Techstars Space Accelerator

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Type of Funding: Growth stage

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🚁 One Step Closer to Air Taxis in LA
Image Source: Joby Aviation

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Joby Aviation, a pioneering electric air taxi company, has achieved a significant milestone by successfully flying a hydrogen-electric aircraft demonstrator for 523 miles with only water as a byproduct. This groundbreaking flight showcases the potential for emissions-free regional travel using vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, eliminating the need for traditional runways. The company's innovative approach combines its existing battery-electric air taxi technology with hydrogen fuel cells, paving the way for longer-range, environmentally friendly air travel.

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Notably, Joby Aviation has already made strides in Southern California by securing an agreement with John Wayne Airport earlier this year to install the region's first electric air taxi charger. This strategic move sets the stage for LA to be among the initial markets where Joby will launch its electric air taxi service. With plans to commence commercial operations as early as 2025 using its battery-electric air taxi, LA residents may soon have access to a fast, quiet, and environmentally friendly mode of transportation that could significantly reduce travel times and traffic congestion in the region. In the not too distant future, LA might find itself in an identity crisis without traffic and excess smog 🤞🤞.


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