Connecting Our Brains To The Internet

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At this year’s Le Web, a Paris conference taking place December 4-6, organizers Loic and Geraldine Le Meur won’t just have the Internet on their minds: they plan to literally link their brains to it.

The Le Meurs are set to take part in an on-stage demonstration of thought-controlled computing technology developed by InteraXon, a U.S. company. Sensors at the front and sides of the headbands they will wear will gather information on how their brains are functioning via electroencephalography (EEG scanning), and then send the info wirelessly over the Internet to their personal mobile devices.

InteraXon’sbrainwave-sensing Muse headbands, which retail for $199, offer wearers the ability to see their brain function in real time and use the info to improve or change it. “If you are really stressed you can flip on the headband and do some exercises to get to a more neutral state or if you are distracted you can do focus exercises to be more effective when taking tests,” says InteraXon CEO Ariel Garten, a scheduled speaker at Le Web. The company has raised $177,000 on crowd-sourcing platform Indiegogo.

Garten predicts that tracking brain states will give rise to a whole host of “cool applications” such as music players that sense your mood and play tunes to make you happy if you are depressed or “brain wave match making” that would pair people according to how they respond to things.

The brain-technology connection can also be used as a new channel for social signaling. Instead of a headband, NeuroSky, another U.S. company, sells fluffy cat ears for $99.99 that also make use of EEG technology and move in real time according to your state of mind, letting everyone know what mood you are in.

Gimmicky as it sounds, in the near future the same technology could be life-changing for people with severe physical handicaps or attention deficit disorder.

NeuroSky’s technology senses analog electric brainwaves and processes them into digital signals to make measurements available to power the user interface of toys like the cat ears, Mattel’s Mindflex or Star Wars Force Trainer. But the same technology can also be applied to investigational medical applications. Stanley Yang, the chief executive of NeuroSky, says he expects to have technology ready by the middle of next year that will help people with Lou Gehrig’s disease, cerebral palsy, or any condition that leaves people physically incapacitated but still mentally sharp, to communicate their needs, their desires and their thoughts. NeuroSky is collaborating with a company in Brazil on a headset that can use brainwaves to operate a simple keyboard program, allowing those using it to spell out what they want to say.

NeuroSky says it successfully tested the system on a 21-year-old man with Lou Gehrig’s, or Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a disease of the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control voluntary muscle movement. He was asked baseline questions to ensure the system was working and then was asked if he loved his mother. The keyboard typed yes over and over again, recalls Yang. It was the first time in his life that the man had been able to express the emotion to his mother in words and he wanted to make sure she got the message.

Systems that allow people with ALS to communicate have existed for a long time. British physicist Stephen Hawking is a high-profile example. He has used a variety of technologies, includinga special infrared laser attached to his glasses, to communicate using pulses from his right cheek. “What we have just begun to do is to consumerize these expensive technologies,” says Yang. “My goal is to be able to sell a system for below $100 and certainly never over $200.”

NeuroSky’s technology is already installed in over a million devices. Among them are biosensors used in a game that retails for $149 called Focus Pocus, developed by university professors and experts, that uses brain-wave tracking and training to treat children with attention deficit syndrome (ADD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).Focus Pocus, which can be played individually or against an opponent, includes a training mode with performance tracking to help kids master their concentration powers through 12 mini-games. The parental reporting application FocusIn uses performance and EEG data to generate daily and end-of-training reports. In training mode, the difficulty level of the games is adaptive, adjusting game-by-game to the performance of the child.

The promise is huge, says NeuroSky. On its web site it predicts: “we will see a day in the near future where heart attacks will be mitigated, seizures avoided, machines operated, movies edited, games controlled, REM prolonged, bulls eyes scored, and lessons learned using only the power of biosensors.”

Like Yang, InteraXon’s Garten is convinced that the best is yet to come. “Brains will be connected to technology,” she says. The Le Meurs can attest to that.

 

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