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3-D Printed Device Allows Users Access to Brainwaves

You probably don't need to start making a tinfoil hat just yet, but an outfit called OpenBCI recently achieved their $200K Kickstarter goal and now plans to move ahead with their open-source brainwave reader project. So what, you might ask, is OpenBCI? To quote their almost-4000-word Kickstarter pitch, "OpenBCI is a low-cost, programmable, open-source EEG [electroencephalography] platform that gives anybody with a computer access to their brainwaves."

In terms of price point, the device was offered to Kickstarter backers for about $300.

"Open-source" means that their source code, the initial code that a program is eventually compiled from, is freely available to any who might be interested in using or tweaking it. The BCI part stands for brain-computer interface. The parts closest to the brain, the electrodes, are mounted in a customizable and 3-D printable EEG headset. These electrodes transmit signals to a Texas Instruments ADS1299, which is specifically designed for EEG signals. The TI chip, a second microcontroller, an SD card for storage, and a Bluetooth transmitter all mount on the headset. Open-source software in the user's computer picks up these signals and does whatever the user likes (and can program) with those signals.

Rendering of the 3D printable OpenBCI headset. (Courtesy OpenBCI)
Rendering of the 3D printable OpenBCI headset. (Courtesy OpenBCI)
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The developers say they "want OpenBCI to be beneficial for researchers as well as novice brain hackers." Therefore the system was designed using the International 10-20 system, which is the internationally recognized method of placing EEG electrodes on the human scalp. Their headset design allows electrode placement anywhere on the 10-20 diagram. So it would not be bulky and uncomfortable, a hierarchical system of snap-in pieces was designed.

Once these data are in the user's computer, programs that visualize and process the brainwaves are needed to make the raw EEG data meaningful. The developers say they have code examples built in Arduino, ChipKIT, Processing, Python, and openFramworks. In addition, they say they are actively working to make the hardware data accessible to all commonly used open-source EEG signal processing applications, such as BrainBay, OpenVibe, and others.

Potential above-the-table uses are said to include neural therapy to improve your attention or productivity, controlling video games with via motor cortex, or controlling "the disco lights at your next house party based on your mood." All that is needed is the software algorithms and signal processing to make it work.

This is all very interesting and may well result in some useful applications beyond the category of neat parlor tricks. According to an article on Wired, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) was sufficiently impressed to give them "a little funding help." Hmmm...

The fact that the device also supports "active electrodes" needn't cause any additional alarm among conspiracy theorists. Active electrodes simply have a built-in amplifier to amplify the picked-up signal; they don't transmit... yet.

The first 3-D-printed prototype of the device.
The first 3-D-printed prototype of the brain scanner.
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