Sep 18, 2012
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On a Sunday night nine years ago, I arrived home for a family dinner, greeted at the door by my sister. It took no more than a few seconds for her to notice that I wasn’t my usual cheery self. She knew the exact remedy to liven me up: a bowl of Mum’s delicious soup and our favorite '80s playlist, which got both of us grooving and singing along. Before long, I was laughing joyfully, my worries and concerns temporarily suspended.
These simple steps were so obvious to my sister, yet completely out of the realm of possibility for a computer. Computing applications primarily respond to what you explicitly direct them to do. They can’t observe your mood or feelings and respond intuitively. I couldn't help but wonder back then whether it might be possible to introduce this whole realm of human interaction to human-computer interaction. Could technology be developed that not only understands what you direct it to do, but also knows how to respond to your facial expressions, moods, and emotional cues?
The human brain is made up of billions of active neurons. When these neurons interact, the chemical reaction emits an electrical impulse, which can be measured. By observing the fluctuations in electrical impulses and how groups of neurons interact and then shift rhythm to coordinate with other subsets of neurons, we can glean some insight into the emotional and cognitive states of a person and even deduce his or her facial expressions.
This idea led to the creation of Emotiv and developing our EPOC neuroheadset, which reads and interprets your brainwaves. The headset's multisensor "arms," which extend to the front and back of your head, pick up electrical signals from different functional parts of the brain. Both subconscious and conscious mental states can be detected using advanced algorithms, allowing the computer to react more naturally to the user’s mental state and even to accept direct mental commands.
That's the technical explanation of how the technology works, but what does it really mean to our daily lives? For one, it can actually help improve your mood the way my sister did on that Sunday night. A device like the neuroheadset can determine what movies, photos, and music make you happy or sad, for example, by picking up your brainwaves. It observes electrical fluctuations while you're experiencing them, then uses mathematical algorithms to apply emotional tags to them. So if you happen to come home feeling down after a long day at work, you put on the headset, and it picks up on your mood and then begins playing songs it knows will make you relax and feel better. Or, if you want to search for that particular part of a movie that makes you laugh out loud, the device can easily find it when you recall that happy moment. The technology is still in its infancy, but there are already some fun applications.
Moving Objects With Your Mind
The possibilities extend far beyond the emotional-tagging of playlists. A young woman who was severely immobilized from a car accident almost a decade ago struggled for years to regain the ability and confidence to communicate with her loved ones. Through her own perseverance and the commitment and dedication of her caregivers, she has been able to slowly build her ability to manipulate objects simply with her mind. Wearing the neuroheadset, she can move a virtual cube on the computer screen forward, lift it up, and let it return to its default position. The mental commands may seem simple, but the tears of joy and smile that beams across her face for the first time in a decade is priceless. There is still much work to do in refining the algorithms and building on the capacity of this technology, but the potential for life-changing applications is already there.
In the Midwest, a doctor reported he was working with the family of a coma patient who had been in a presumed vegetative state for nearly 10 years. Her family insisted she was still mentally active although the classic neurological indicators pointed to a complete coma. The doctor fitted the patient with a standard EPOC headset and was amazed to discover that the patient was able to issue mental commands despite being completely immobilized. Since then the patient has developed a means of communication to interact with her family. The life-changing potential of this technology and the groundbreaking research that can be accomplished are our driving passions.
Taking Brain Research to New Levels
What’s most exciting about this technology as we look into the horizon is the opportunity it has to revolutionize brain research. A fundamental shift is happening in the way in which brain data is being collected. Each of these neuroheadsets is a high-resolution, multi-channel EEG system, taking in more than 2,000 samples of data every second. They're not patients going into hospitals or clinics to get their brains imaged; they're simply everyday people, in the comfort of their own homes or workplaces, doing everyday tasks and activities. And they're contributing brain data at a much greater frequency and wider range of circumstances than what is feasible in a clinical context.
This opens up immense potential for longitudinal monitoring and observation of neuroplasticity and development, and also for users to improve aspects of their mental performance through monitoring and feedback. EEG signatures for focused activity, concentration, relaxation, memory, learning, and linguistic skills already exist and can be used to help users to improve their mental performance. Leveraging this dataset will give us fantastic opportunity to develop new and much better measures across the population or those targeted to specific users, and will be invaluable in developing new ways to detect and monitor undesirable mental conditions.
One of the most humbling aspects of being a pioneer in this area is seeing the steady and gradual adoption of this technology from all fields of endeavor, from psychology to psychiatry, from computer science to machine learning, from artists to musicians, from tinkerers to hackers. The human brain is a frontier worth exploring, and with an interdisciplinary, cross-cultural approach, the possibilities seem endless.
This article is commissioned by Qualcomm Incorporated. The views expressed are the author's own.