Brain-computer interface: the power of thought

Main image Agent Unicorn vo Fashion-Tech designer Anouk Wipprecht. Photo: Marije Dijkema

Controlling machines through thought – a vision that is gradually becoming reality and has received significant reinforcement in recent years. The brain-computer interface (BCI) stands for a new type of communication between man and machine.

By Nicolas Uphaus.

A dream: simply thinking what the machine should perform. Write messages, turn off the oven, call friends – all just by the power of thought? The story could be told in a nutshell, but a closer look reveals that the conversion of brainwaves into commands or information is much more complex. A major driver of research so far has been mainly medical and therapeutic applications. Thanks to brain-computer interface (BCI), paralyzed people can now communicate better, grasp objects or even walk in conjunction with an exoskeleton. Even for stroke patients, BCI therapy makes it possible to at least partially regain lost abilities. In the past five years, however, completely new companies have taken up this topic and want to address a much larger target group in the future. The therapeutic spectrum is to be significantly expanded and the integration into everyday applications such as VR games is in full swing.

Automobile, up close and personal

The Mercedes star on the back of the driver’s head suggests that something is different here. At the IAA Mobility show in Munich in September 2021, the Stuttgart-based automaker unveiled its 2020 VISION AVTR concept vehicle with a new equipment feature – the control of the user interface via a brain-computer interface. After a short calibration of the headset, the measured brainwaves are converted into commands. The study was realized in cooperation with Nextmind, a French start-up spun off from ENS Paris. Its headset relies on a sensor at the back of the head that detects signals from the primary visual cortex. The application is an attention-sensing interface, meaning it can detect which visual areas of the interface the user is focusing on based on brain activity. The product is ready for the market, the developer kit is available for ca. 400 euros available and can also be integrated into AR or VR headsets.

Vision AVTR. © Daimler AG. All rights reserved.

The smart bathing cap

Elon Musk’s Neuralink. Photo: Steve Jurvetson. Published by Wikimedia Commons, public domain according to UrhG §64. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

In order to measure brain waves as precisely as possible, electrodes must be placed at the right points in a brain-computer interface and, if necessary, an additional gel must be applied to enable signal transmission from head to sensor. to be optimized. The design and appearance of the caps used in medical applications are reminiscent of the headgear worn by water polo players or babies. The coolness of mind control can already be somewhat lost by these looks. Commercial companies for the market outside medical applications have also recognized this – the sensors from Nextmind or the multi-part helmet of Kernel have clearly departed from the familiar sensor caps.

For signal transmission, however, the closer the better. This is why implants achieve the best results – but aren’t attractive to everyone. Elon Musk is convinced that this will change and is developing Neuralink with his company not only the implants, but also the surgical robot that will implant them in the human skull. The implant, 23 mm in diameter and 8 mm high, will be glued into the top of the skull, and the device’s 1024 ultrafine electrodes will be sewn to the surface of the brain. The brain including the implant thus becomes, so to speak, hardware on which new programs can always be installed. Neuralink promises a wide range of applications: For example, curing paralysis or alleviating common diseases such as addiction or depression.

From medical to mainstream

Graz is a stronghold of BCI research. The Company g.tec medical engineering, a spin-off of the Graz University of Technology, has been a pioneer in the field for more than 20 years and now has a team of more than 70 people. As the name implies, the Graz-based company focuses especially on medical applications. These range from neurological training for stroke patients to Parkinson’s therapy and neurorobotics. Acting as an offshoot for broader user groups, g.tec neurotechnology; the product Unicorn Hybrid Black has fewer sensors than a medical EEG cap and is aimed at a more experimental target group – from software developers to media artists. G.tec is also entering into direct cooperative ventures in this area, such as with the fashion tech designer Anouk Wipprecht. It designed a headset with a unicorn that has a camera integrated into it. If the EEG sensors detect a state of high concentration in the wearer, the camera starts recording video. Thus, it is possible to understand which conditions or environments promote high or low levels of concentration. An application that can also be used therapeutically, for example with children with ADHD.

Agent Unicorn by Anouk Wipprecht. Photo: Christina Bakuchava

Unicorn Hybrid Black EEG Headset. © g.tec medical engineering GmbH

Facebook, on the other hand, has already discontinued its commitment to brain-computer interfaces as a possible input medium for AR glasses after four years. The BCI software developed in the process is made available by the company as open source. In 2019, Facebook had acquired startup CTRL-Labs for an estimated several hundred million dollars to further develop its wristband and link it to its own services. This path is now to be further pursued for the development of human-machine interfaces. Instead of communicating directly with the brain, the wristband can read and interpret muscle signals on the wrist via electromyography (EMG).

Kernel Flow. © 2022 Kernel ®. All Rights Reserved

BCI for all

The OpenBCI platform has been in existence since 2013, which wants to make it possible for everyone interested to get involved with the topic of brain-computer interfaces. The store offers the necessary hardware for do-it-yourself construction, software and 3D data for self-printing are available free of charge, and the community for exchange is virtually included in the package. The name, however, should not create the illusion that the products are bargains – entry-level prices can quickly reach four figures, even for OpenBCI. OpenBCI is currently working with other companies and research institutions on a project called Galea, an AR/VR headset that integrates a wide range of sensors, from EEG to eye tracking, and is thus intended to record the wearer’s emotions and reactions as precisely as possible.

New thoughts

The time seems to be ripe: As the number of companies moving into the field of brain-computer interfaces grows, so do the applications and market potential. What is a boon for people with physical disabilities, and for some even the only precise way to communicate with others, is now leaving the niche of mainly medical and therapeutic applications. The even more extensive self-analysis and at the same time the fascination of being able to interact with machines using only the power of thought is expected to move many more people in the coming years.

The German Innovation Award 2022

The German Innovation Award honors cross-industry products and solutions that stand out from previous solutions primarily because of their added value for users. Because innovations that shape the future and improve lives exist in all industries. Sometimes you see it at first glance – but often you don’t. This is what the German Innovation Award wants to change. He makes great achievements visible to a wide audience and ensures successful positioning in the marketplace.

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