Despite the large crowd it drew, Neurable's booth setup at SIGGRAPH 2017 earlier this year was pretty simple. There were no handheld controllers, mice, motion trackers, or keyboards, no HP Z Backpack computers, no robots ... just a chair, a screen, and a modified HTC Vive VR headset. The game on the screen also looked simple enough, tasking players with picking up and manipulating toys and other objects to escape a room they were trapped in. But the difference was that the players weren't playing the game with controllers, head movement, or even hand gestures ... they were using their thoughts.
|In its current iteration Neurable's EEG headset is an array of seven electrodes that attaches to a HTV Vive headset. (Image source: Neurable)|
The demonstration, by Boston-based startup Neurable (a combination of “neuron” and “able”), was one of the company's first official live demonstrations of its brain-computer interface (BCI) technology. And while it could be easy to label it as another sort of high-end gaming peripheral, company founder and CEO Ramses Alcaide said virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are only the entry points for Neurable's mission – “creating a world without limits,” where control over any device is a simple thought away.
In an interview with Design News Alcaide admitted his company's ambitions sound like something out of a William Gibson novel. But he also believes its adoption could come sooner than we think. “Interacting with your brain is the new way in which people will interact with the world,” he said. “Technology comes in three stages: first, the tech is created; second, an interaction method that makes it natural is created; and third, is the killer app...we're already at the second phase.”
That second phase comes via Neurable's leveraging of a technology that has been around for over a century, electroencephalography (EEG). EEG has a big presence in medical research and in academia, where researchers have used it to in everything from medical diagnosis and drug testing, to creating brain-computer interfaces that transform the brain's electrical activity into actions and commands in computers and other devices.
There's even an annual award, the BCI Research Award , devoted to BCI projects. The 2016 winner was a team of researchers from the Battelle Memorial Institute in Ohio, who created a system that used an implanted BCI to restore movement to a quadriplegic's wrist and fingers .
Like so many other BCI projects, Neurable began on the university research level. While studying for a PhD in neuroscience and BCIs at the University of Michigan, Alcaide developed the unique machine learning algorithm that forms the basis of Neurable's technology. “[Our] innovation isn't the electrodes, it's the machine learning platform that interprets brain activity,” he said.
EEG picks up what are called event-related potentials (ERPs) in your brain, small electrical signals that occur as your your neurons fire in response to some sort of stimulation. “It basically tells you if something changes that a person is interested in and they want to take conscious action on,” Alcaide explained. “Think of how a mouse on