This billion-dollar startup wants to capture your emotions in virtual reality

Social VR has the potential to shift the bounds of human communication, it’s part of the reason why Facebook has invested billions in the technology.

One of the keys to having positive VR interactions will be having the ability to interpret the emotions of the people you’re chatting with. Today, MindMaze is showing off the MASK, a device that reads the emotions on your face while you’re in VR.

I had a chance to meet with MindMaze CEO Tej Tadi and demo the emotion-tracking product. After strapping the MASK-equipped headset on, I was able to see an onscreen avatar mimic my emotions with startling speed.

What really makes this product stand out is the genius form factor: electrodes are outfitted into the foam liner face pad that is already pressed up against your face when you’re securing your headset. These electrodes get a sense of your facial muscles and can even predict what your emotions will be milliseconds before you fully complete it.

The device senses a limited range of emotions at the moment including smiling, frowning, winking, smirking and raising your eyebrows but there’s so much you can convey in a social VR setting once you unlock body language. Once major headset manufacturers unlock eye-tracking technologies the combination will make social VR experiences that much richer.

MindMaze received the distinction last year of being the first VR-focused startup to receive unicorn status after receiving a $1 billion valuation following a $100 million raise.

MindMaze has been in a more comfortable position than most in the VR industry. They sell their own proprietary headsets to hospitals so they don’t really have to worry about the broader industry or how many headsets Oculus is selling.

“The pressure is off a bit,” Tadi admits.

MindMaze is already in 50 hospitals across Europe and Asia where their technology is helping stroke victims and amputees rehabilitate.

As MindMaze breaks into the consumer market, things grow a bit more uncertain but Tadi insists that the MASK falls in line with the company’s bread-and-butter medical ambitions, that being “commercializing the interface between the brain and VR.”

The company’s social hardware follows announcements late last year that Facebook will be introducing an expansive social platform. While the demo showcased some pretty emotional avatars, it was later revealed that all of the avatars’ smiles and jaw-drops were courtesy of controller gestures.

MindMaze hopes that by capitalizing by the emotions already on people’s faces, they can entice more consumers.

MASK’s form factor is a clear win, and the company says that when the product is eventually available to consumers, it will cost less than $40. Selling VR peripherals direct is a challenging business, so for MindMaze, the main task will be getting top headset manufacturers to bake the tech into future iterations of their products. Tadi tells us that MindMaze is already in talks with manufacturers, though he wasn’t able to share names.