Despite more than 40 years of research, brain computer interface (BCI) technology has not fully stepped into the spotlight with popular technologies like RFID, LEDs, and OLEDs. In terms of advertising and promotion, BCI is probably running head and shoulders with speech recognition and virtual reality, two other under-exposed technologies.
David Westendorf, vice president of business development and product marketing at NeuroSky, a company noted for its expertise in biosensor technology and creation of BCI-based products, says the main problem is that consumer manufacturers don’t know BCI while BCI experts don’t know consumer electronics.
What Is BCI?
A BCI is a device that enables communication from a human brain to a computer. It does not imply communication from the computer to the brain (for now). Sensors make contact at specific points on the skull and pick up electrical impulses that occur when neurons in the brain transmit and receive signals.
The sensors are deployable on a type of helmet, similar to the EPOC headset (Fig. 1) that neuro-engineering company Emotiv offers developers. The sensors feed these signals to a computer, where proprietary algorithms translate them into any number of desired actions. For example, NeuroSky’s MindSet measures brain fluctuations and uses proprietary algorithms to translate various types of mental activity.
Initial developments for BCI come from medical applications. For instance, a typical, highly accurate electroencephalography (EEG) system requiring a technician’s assistance, gel, and 15 to 30 minutes to calibrate can cost $40,000 or more. Via BCI technology, NeuroSky’s MindSet-based EEG machine has a calibration time of four seconds and an accuracy rate of 90% to 96%, and it costs about $199.
Debuting in 2009, MindFlex (Fig. 2) from game-maker Mattel uses a headset with a variation of the EEG technology to recognize the wearer’s brainwaves. It transmits a signal based on those brainwaves to control a fan within the game console. Brainwaves control the power of the fan, which levitates and moves a ball. Users need to focus their concentration to accurately move the ball through a number of obstacles and around the console to win the game.
If you think about the scope of BCI technology—no pun intended—the only limits to the number and types of applications are those of their designers’ imaginations. According to Westendorf, consumer markets for BCI are growing. In fact, NeuroSky expects the brain fitness market to expand from $265 million in 2008 to $5 billion by 2015.
Universities and companies now spend more on BCI research than they receive from patent licenses. If the market is receptive to BCI products, why is there a disproportionate shortage of them? Based on Westendorf’s hypothesis, there is a ravine between BCI research and the consumer. Enter NeuroSky CEO Stanley Yang, who is effectively bridging that gap.
“Through research and commercialization partnerships with Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, Trinity College, the University of Wollongong, the University of Washington, and others, NeuroSky is helping unlock decades of brainwave research for mass market applications,” said Yang. “We look forward to product announcements with these and more partners in the coming years.”
Once again, the possibilities are infinite. Imagine the headsets of millions of users worldwide forming a single, neurotic network. A new Internet, perhaps?