For most people how the human brain works remains a mystery, let alone how to hack it. A new Kickstarter campaign created by engineers Joel Murphy and Conor Russomanno aims to change this by putting an affordable, open-source brain-computer interface kit in the hands & minds of anyone.
Brain-computer interfacing (BCI), sometimes called a mind-machine interface is one of those areas of technology that has longed been viewed as mostly science fiction. The kind of technology you might see in a low budget Sci-Fi movie. Remember Luke Skywalker’s prosthetic limb in The Empire Strikes Back? More recently new advancement in the BCI field is now opening new opportunities for a seemingly limitless range of applications powered by nothing more than your thoughts.
In healthcare, medical grade BCIs are often used in assisting people with damage to their cognitive or sensory-motor functions, however, more and more we are seeing affordable BCIs emerge in neurotherapy applications that assist people with ADHD, anxiety, phobia, depression, and other common psychological ailments.
Over the last couple year this type BCI technology has begun to improve. In United States, the Food and Drug Administration recently approved a new artificial retina technology known as the Argus II that can restore partial sight to people suffering from a specific type of blindness known as retinitis pigmentosa. Elsewhere, scientists at the University of Southern California at Los Angeles believe they are close to being able to restore a person’s memory capabilities with microchips inserted in the brain. The Researchers used an electronic system that duplicates the neural signals associated with memory. They then managed to replicate the brain function in rats associated with long-term learned behavior, even when the rats had been drugged to forget.
“Flip the switch on, and the rats remember. Flip it off, and the rats forget,” said Theodore Berger of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, who holds the David Packard Chair in Engineering and is director of the USC Center for Neural Engineering.
The tools for reading brainwaves have been around since at least 1912, when Russian physiologist, Vladimir Vladimirovich Pravdich-Neminsky published the first use of electroencephalography (EEG). EEG provides the ability to measure the faint electrical signals that our brains make when we do things. These signals are emitted when we think, day-dream, sleep, move around, or meditate. Whenever we use our brains, electrical impulses are moving and potentials are flowing all around inside of our heads. EEG is a technique for recording these brain signals.
According to the project creators “An EEG system has three basic parts to measure these signals: electrodes which are placed on the scalp; an electronic amplifier that can sense and relay the tiny electrical changes that your brain makes; and a signal processing computer used to make sense of the data and map it to some type of output. After that, the possibilities are endless! One of the most important links in the chain is the amplifier. It is the goal of our Kickstarter to make an open-source, affordable, high-quality EEG amplifier available to everyone so that those possibilities we are talking about can be realized by anyone.”
Technically, OpenBCI is built around Texas Instrument’s ADS1299 IC. The ADS1299 is an 8-channel, low-noise, 24-bit analog-to-digital converter designed specifically for measuring EEG signals. The creators say, “The great thing about OpenBCI is that it’s totally open source. At this point in time, building on top of the OpenBCI Brainwave Visualizer or building unique applications does require some basic programming knowledge. With that said, our mission is to lower the barrier of entry so that even amateur developers can get up and running right away.“
A minimum pledge of US$269 will get you the signal capture system, without electrodes; for those, you’ll need to bump it up to US$294. To add the OpenBCI Board, you’ll need to pledge US$314. All have an estimated delivery date of March 2014.
The consumer BCI sector is still nascent with several companies jumping into the space recently. Some of these companies include title="Neural Impulse Actuator">Neural Impulse Actuator (April 2008) Emotiv Systems (December 2009) NeuroSky (June 2009)
The OpenBCI project has already raised $86,082 (as of writing), at the very least proving there is potential demand for DIY mind hacking technology. Looking forward, technologies like OpenBCI could provide the tools to enable a kind of bionic scientific revolution that may some day help the blind to see, enable amputees to walk again and maybe even restore memories to those affected with serious brain illnesses.