By: Nidhi Subbaraman
Reposted from MIT Technology Review
My very first introduction to brain sensors was a distinctly furry one. The sensors involved a pair of electrical cat ears made by a Japanese firm called Neurosky. Perched on your head, the ears would move and wiggle in accordance with your thoughts or feelings—or that’s how the YouTube video explains it, anyway.
I recently came across another sensor that claimed to perform a similar brain-sensing task. It’s designed by a Canadian company called InteraXon, which is running an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to get the project off the ground. They’re calling the headband the “Muse” and describing it as a chic brainwave reader for your forehead.
With its curved ends tucked behind your ears, the Muse is meant to track your moods, picking up indications of focus and concentration or stress, InteraXon claims. It’s slightly less conspicuous than the cat ears, don’t you agree?
The headband is supposed to work like a portable electroencephalograph, the company explains on its website, picking up signals in the brain generated by the electrical pings of firing neurons. InteraXon says it’s developed algorithms that glean shifts in patterns indicating stress, focus, and relaxation from the tangled mix of electromagnetic signals that the Muse band registers.
Bluetooth-savvy, the Muse transmits the data it’s picking up to a smartphone app, which visually depicts the ticking in your brain. (Or so the company says—having never tested one myself, I only have YouTube videos for proof.)
To be clear, the Muse isn’t designed to read your thoughts. “You can think of it like a heart-rate monitor for your brain,” InteraXon cofounder Trevor Colemen explained during an Ask Me Anything session on Reddit recently. “With a heart rate monitor, you can tell how active someone is, but not what sport they’re playing. In the same way, we can detect levels of activity, but not what specifically you’re thinking.”
The execs at InteraXon hope that the Muse will be used for more than just mental calisthenics, and that it will interface meaningfully with apps on your computer and phone. Which is kind of similar to the Mindwave Mobile Brainwave headset that lets you play hands-free games on your phone using only the headset and, well, your mind. When Wired’s Christina Bonnington reviewed that device she wrote: “Yes, the technology does work. It’s just not very fun.” Also: “You look like a dork.”
To let developers in on the fun and mind games, InteraXon is planning an SDK launch early next year. But one application already exists. In an early moment of inspiration, InteraXon built what it describes as a “thought-controlled beer tap” demoed at events in the past. (In this application, you’re supposed to be able to open and shut the tap on a keg of beer just by thinking about it.)
The company’s core technology was developed at electrical engineer Steve Mann’s lab at the University of Toronto. Mann founded the company and remains on the board as an advisor. (Mann was also the bespectacled tourist who earned himself a news moment as the cyborg scientist attacked at a Parisian McDonald’s on account of his extraordinary headgear.)
InteraXon hopes to raise $150,000 through its Indiegogo campaign by December 7 this year. At last count, contributors had chipped in a little over $51,000, and 200 of those had thrown in $135, the amount that gets you rewarded with a free headband, app, and access to the SDK at a discounted rate. A go at the thought-controlled beer tap is a second perk (an expensive one, be warned), as is a T-shirt with your brainwaves custom-patterned on it. After all, what else could you possibly want to wear if you have a mind-reading headband plastered to your forehead?
Nidhi is a freelance writer interested in a whole range of topics, but usually she is snooping for stories at the messy intersection of biology and technology. She is now a contributing writer at Fast Company.
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