Breakthroughs in brain-computer interface (BCI) technology have dominated headlines for the past two decades with promises of a revolutionary future just around the corner. Although an enormous amount of progress has been made (in a wide range of applications ranging from neuroprosthetics to gaming), mainstream access to the technology has remained limited, and largely unchanged. However, companies such as Emotiv Systems, Neurosky, and MyndPlay may be changing all of that by providing a vast new array of new, simplified, and affordable EEG headsets to the average consumer.
What is BCI?
The idea of brain-computer interface, or interaction, exists on two proven principles: that neuron’s communicate with each other using electric signals, and that these electric signals can be read digitally. We can make sense of these readings with the identification of distinct neural firing patterns (variations in the strength of the electromagnetic waves emitted from your brain).
Why does this matter?
Why is this exciting? Because it means we can communicate digitally with only our thoughts. Entirely brain controlled robotic arms already exist that allow amputee’s and quadriplegics to feed themselves, communicate, and even hold hands. Mind controlled toys, video games, and movies have already been created and tested, some even released into the consumer market (Mindflex, Force Trainer). What is truly amazing, however, is that although much of this technology has existed for over a decade, most of us have had little or no contact with it. Some of us are hardly aware it exists at all.
This brings us to an interesting question. If the technology exists and has existed for so long, why has it not been applied in the consumer market? Why do we have yet to see mind controlled computers, tv’s, and phones sitting on shelves around the country? The anwer is simple: the advances in BCI technology have far outpaced the development of practical software. As Michio Kaku explains in Physics of the Future:
Although hardware may progress exponentially, software may not... software is different; it requires a human to sit down with a pencil and paper and write code. That is the bottleneck, the human.
Commercially available EEG headsets could change everything
This is the part where the new, affordable, and most importantly, programmable, EEG headsets come into play. For the first time, programmers and developers are being given real access to a technology that can be integrated into an almost unlimited number of applications. The new headsets contain two incredibly important characteristics: a small number of sensors (most contain only 1-14), and the ability to connect wirelessly to PC’s that run on the three main consumer operating systems (Linux, Windows, or Mac OS X).
The companies who are producing these headsets certainly understand the incredible importance of inspiring developers. In fact, both the Emotiv EPOC and the NeuroSky MindWave headset’s (both between a meager $100-$300) include free SDK (software development kits). In addition to a generous revenue share opportunity, qualified applicants may also receive valuable developer tools such as code libraries, online forum access, and even discounted hardware.
William Gibson, the author of Neuromancer, was right when he said, “The future is already here. It’s just unevenly distributed.”
It takes time for technology to be discovered, created, developed, and finally useful to the average person. However, now that BCI is in the hands of developers and programmers, it is only a matter of time before we will see it filter into our daily lives.
Once the software catches up to the technology, there will be nothing to stop a revolution along the lines of the PC in the 70’s. Although we may not harness the power of Jedi knights, something resembling Will Smith’s cyborg arm in I, Robot may very realistically be something we see in our lifetime. The possibilities are truly endless, and will, without a doubt, completely change the world and how we interact with it.