OpenBCI Lets You Open Source Your Brain

OpenBCI's open-source platform wants to put the brain-computer interface (BCI) into the hands of the masses.

OpenBCI wants to put the brain-computer interface (BCI) into the hands of the masses. After a successful crowdfunding campaign, the company is set to make its OpenBCI platform for capturing high quality EEG brainwave data available to the wider public. The project is based on the Arduino, an open-source platform for electronics prototyping, and wants to give people easy access to technology traditionally only available in fixed, closed systems that only give limited options for transforming EEG signals into meaningful data.

“Arduino has managed to bring down the learning curve massively for novices,” says Conor Russomanno, co-founder of OpenBCI, “We're really trying to follow in their footsteps and bring down the learning curve by having a really simple programming interface and doing the necessary leg work to get starter guides and simple implementations and how-to's up on our Web site.”
While Russomanno says the team has no plans to label OpenBCI itself as a medical device, they hope that device makers and medical researchers will be among the groups that embrace the technology. “Our hope is that the early adopters will implement the OpenBCI tool into more practical implementations, he says. “EEG is not the solution, it is one piece of the solution.” OpenBCI hopes that users will combine it with other devices such as accelerometers to capture new and more useful brainwave data. “When you combine EEG with other biosensors such as heart rate, movement, and temperature, and you start to look at the entire environment and all of the stimuli, it's going to get really interesting and we're going to start figuring out things like emotion and really putting a quantitative number on these typically qualitative metrics like depression, anxiety, and things like that.”
OpenBCI's brain-computer interface platform will soon come mounted on a 3D-printed headset with EEG electrodes.
Russomanno began his first work into EEGs two years ago while studying for his MFA in design and technology at Parsons School of Design in New York. “I got really interested in commercial EEGs and I hacked apart a few to build a bridge between a baseball cap with some EEG sensors and an Android app. My whole thesis was based on using that technology.” Russomanno's work attracted the attention of OpenBCI co-founder Joel Murphy, who teaches physical computing at Parsons The New School for Design and had been asked to be part of a government grant to build an open-source EEG platform. With Murphy working the hardware and Russomanno the software, the team built the first OpenBCI prototype using an Arduino breakout board.
After their prototype generated interest at Maker Faire, the annual convention for DIY-oriented inventors and artists, they decided to create a Kickstarter campaign as a first step toward making OpenBCI available to the general public. While the product's final iteration has not been created (and may never be, given that it's an open-source platform) what's available to backers is a $300 8-channel EEG capture system that is Bluetooth-enabled, Arduino-compatible, and has onboard data storage via a removable SD card. EEG electrodes are available separately as is an optional daisy chain that can double the number of electrodes to 16. The company follows the 10-20 system – the international standard for placement of electrodes for EEG applications and is also working on prototyping a 3D-printed headset that will encompass the electrodes and an OpenBCI module. On it's Kickstarter page the company says 3D printing the headset will keep the platform open for customization.
At the core of the OpenBCI is a Texas Instruments chip, the ADS1299 IC, an analog-to-digital converter microchip designed specifically for capturing EEG data. “We chose [the ADS1299] because it is extremely robust. We're taking this chip that is intended for electrical engineers and making it accessible to novice programmers,” Russomanno says. “We're building this as the connection of two very powerful technologies–the Arduinio and the ADS1299–and packaging it into the most accessible BCI to date.”

Industry experts will be discussing various topics on device design, prototyping, and usability at MD&M West, Feb. 10-13, 2014. 

The firmware OpenBCI has created for the hardware is designed to easily bridge this gap and be as simple as possible for other programmers to understand and build upon. Someday, users may be able to program OpenBCI using simple sentences and commands. “The firmware we have written translates simple Arduino methods–you write a sentence as a method and our firmware translates it into binary that can communicate with the Texas Instruments chip," Russomanno says.
OpenBCI is moving to foster a community around its technology by hosting regular “hackathons” – meetups where engineers, scientists, programmers, students, and artists can share ideas and developments. By keeping the platform open source, creators are really free to make applications as simple or complex as they desire and share their information with the wider OpenBCI community. “If we succeed in creating something that really lowers the barrier to entry it'll be an amazing learning tool,” Russomanno says.
Of course, the nature of open source means having to constantly iterate and improve the technology – less the company gets left behind by its own customer base. It's the biggest challenge but also the most likely source of true innovation. “One of the cool things about open source is it requires the people that create to keep creating,” Russomanno says. “You can't just pound an idea out and say 'I'm going to sit on it and make a ton of money.' By making it open source you're almost committing to continue on improving this device. If you don't somebody else is going to do it.”  
-Chris Wiltz, Associate Editor, MD+DI
OpenBCI's Kickstarter video.


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