Neuro XR uses emotional heat mapping as 3D VR age looms
The metaverse must be carefully curated to avoid the cultural damage – mental health, division, addiction – that has characterised the internet era so far, say the co-founders of Cambridge-based Neuro XR.
CEO Elena Cismigiu and CTO Matthew Critchley founded the company, which provides behavioural insights into immersive virtual worlds, in 2019. The duo – also a couple – met at Keele University where Elena was studying neuroscience, while Matt read psychology.
Initially, the company was set up as a marketing agency.
“We got an office on Keele Science Park,” says Elena, speaking at the Bradfield Centre on Cambridge Science Park, Neuro XR’s current base.
Matt adds: “We started the business as a consultancy to do psychological testing for businesses, then we had some interest from organisations testing for military training.”
Elena sent a message to Cambridge Future Tech, the ‘technology-first’ venture builder.
“We spoke to Owen at Cambridge Future Tech,” continues Matt. “He had been a fighter pilot.”
Cambridge Future Tech (CFT) is also based at the Bradfield and works with founders to commercialise scientific discoveries and engineering/technical innovations. The focus is on digital (AI, data) and physical sciences (eg semiconductors, materials, quantum, robotics).
Soon after meeting up, Neuro XR enrolled with CFT.
“They said ‘do you think you can build tech around this idea?’,” says Matt.
“They already had Mimicrete so we were the second company to join,” says Elena. “We started at the end of 2019 and pivoted a couple of times.”
Matt continues: “We got a government grant to develop a patent, which was for EEG – a headset for brain patients.”
The company switched from marketing to more general technology, then received an Innovate UK grant in 2021.
“We had enough money for two patents, and we filed the first one then held off to wait for a market that’s big enough. So we landed on emotional heat mapping,” says Matt.
Elena adds: “That was last summer. Then we moved and incorporated Neuro XT around this new technology.”
Emotional heat mapping emerged from a 2013 study by scientists in Finland who told subjects to think about one of 14 emotions such as love, disgust, anger, and pride.
The volunteers then painted areas of the body that felt stimulated by that emotion – and the results were surprisingly consistent, even across cultures.
“It’s all software-based,” says Matt. “I wrote the patent, and manage the research. I’m a software developer and a psychology researcher, so we can do measurements of people’s brain activity in virtual environments then map their emotions back on to a heat map. So for instance if you’re in a virtual version of this room, if you happen to show more stress in one corner, or more attention to one chair, we can measure that.
“It helps people who are making environments. We’ve got some quite big projects coming up but there is an NDA [non-disclosure agreement]. But say you’re creating a virtual shop, if you’re paying attention to a particular shelf you can move stuff to that area.”
Elena adds: “Or you can see where they’re getting stressed and not buying anything.
“In game development you might want to maximise scariness, so we’re working with them [the retailer] to find out where and how they’re getting scared.
“It’s for the metaverse – anything in a 3D environment or in VR. We don’t use the term metaverse much as it’s a bit nebulous.”
Matt notes: “There’s some companies we wouldn’t work with, for instance we were approached by a tobacco company and said no. There’s a lot of potential for good but also for bad – to encourage addictions. We’re very careful to ensure it’s not encouraging addictions.
“The first idea was the metaverse, then we realised it doesn’t have to be limited to that, it could be games, retail, therapies, virtual training – anything in 3D. Virtual training allows you to be tested in a controlled environment and assess how much attention people are paying, how much cognitive load they’re under, how safe they feel. Retail was the
“We have three solid customers so far, and two others we’re in discussions with. Of those companies, two are multi-billion pound conglomerates.”
Elena observes: “It’s a good position to be in. We get proof of concept and revenues, and work with these amazing companies.”
Matt adds: “Our software platform allows clients to use mouse-based eye tracking, brain scanning – as much data as they want. We provide them the software, recommend hardware, and match people’s reaction back on to a virtual environment.”
So far, Neuro XR has been getting the big calls right.
“We try to maximise accessibility,” says Elena. “We obviously want to make environments profitable but also to make them safe, to minimise digital addiction and maximise accessibility.
“We take data privacy really seriously. We want to make sure we don’t take on companies with any negative approaches. We’ve seen how good virtual environments can be with disabilities. In future we want to bring social aspects to the forefront.”
Matt notes: “It’s new tech and a new approach, mostly an emotional heat mapping business.”
The company had a pre-seed round at the end of January.
Elena reveals: “It was oversubscribed, which is great. We initially wanted £250,000 and ended up with £350,000. We’re looking for two new hires.”
The team is also “in talks with an investment fund that invests only in companies with societal good at their core, so technology that lowers digital addiction and reduces mental health issues”.
The immediate goal is to develop the software to the point that VR headsets are no longer required to collect the data, because the naked eye will suffice.
The wider strategy includes an awareness that society has both benefitted from and been damaged by digital technology.
“If we are going to be spending half our lives looking at a screen,” Matt explains, “the measurement of the impact of that is important. It’s important to be not just safe, but also enjoyable and healthy, for users. It’s inevitable these environments will be part of our lives.”
Elena says: “Look at phones... We’ve gone from no technology to technology in every single aspect of our lives. The objective has to be trying to learn from the mistakes of what happened with the internet to make it better for this new generation and the world.”
Matt adds: “We provide a service for environments commercially and also socially. It’s always a balancing act between commercial interests and social interests, and the social factor should come first – to make tech safe for good.”
Elena concludes: “We’ve seen the negative impacts on mental health and learnt to avoid that.”
Owen Thompson, CEO of Cambridge Future Tech, which is shortlisted for Start-up of the Year at next month’s Cambridge Independent Science and Technology Awards, said: “When Elena and I first discussed an engagement with CFT to support her start-up, we were still very early-stage ourselves – we still are – so I was also working a full-time role at BAE Systems as head of training.
“My knowledge and experience in the training and simulation domain gave me the insights necessary to immediately see the potential of Neuro XR. Their technology has an enormous market potential across several verticals.”