We are seeing an explosion in brain-computer interface.
While researching Telepathic Technology, one of our 10 Trends for 2014, we spoke with Ariel Garten, founder and CEO of InteraXon, which creates brain wave-controlled products and applications. The Toronto company’s first showcase product is the upcoming Muse, a stylish “brain-sensing headband” designed to help users learn to better focus and relax their minds. An artist and psychotherapist, Garten has long been interested in brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) and electroencephalography (EEG) devices, which measure the brain’s electrical activity and translate it into usable data. Among the topics we discussed were the mental benefits BCIs can provide, the ethics of neuromarketing and why “a number of very large players” are entering or monitoring this space.
Why are BCIs and EEG readers becoming more mainstream?
We certainly have seen a mass explosion in the consumer EEG-BCI space. Probably the first thing that made that possible is the release of low-cost consumer headsets in the $100 to $300 range. We started seeing them on the market in 2009. There was no real thing that made those possible before—they simply had not been released to the public. Honestly, I don’t know what the tipping points were that allowed this item to come to market. However, that certainly facilitated the explosion we are seeing in brain-computer interface.
The next trend that allows brain-computer interface to be something that is common is a smartphone in everybody’s pockets. We now have sufficient processing power on a phone to receive data from a headset and allow you to take it into the world in some meaningful way. That allowed an awareness of the technology, and people now know what it is. It is a huge education component.
Some of the things that are limiting the development of the technology right now are dry-sensor placement in locations that allow you to do a range of activities. Getting the right balance of sensor placement with a consumer-usable headset is critical to open a market and move it forward. Then there is the need to identify better and better signals from noise. That is really the start. As the technology gets better and better with more users, we are going to see better signal processing and machine-learning approaches to EEG data and then from that, take data to be able to pull out a range of complex signals.
What are some technologies that are still in development that will change the equation?
Dry sensors that read through the hair. Right now it is either dry, bare skin or it is a wet sensor.
Are there any other types of devices, something on the order of a Google Glass, in the works?
One of the limits to consumers’ options is a device people will wear. Therefore, putting devices into form factors may make it easier. We hope that with Muse we solved part of that problem—making something that is sexy, easy to use, kind of fashionable, a designer item. Integration into something like a Glass will then give people even more incentive to put it on their heads.
What are some of the applications that get you excited about this technology?
Across the board, to me the most interesting thing is being able to give people an insight into their own mental process. Our minds are things to which we have limited access points. Certainly, we have brains to which we have very limited access points. This is something that allows you to access your mental process and your brain in an entirely new way that then gives you new information about how you exist in the world and, therefore, allows you to optimize your experience of being in the world.
What is an example of that?
The first tool we are building, which is called Muse, helps you calm and settle the mind. It helps reduce ruminative thinking, anxiety. It helps you learn to gain control over a mental process that allows you to not let your mind run away from you. It lets you stay focused on what you are doing until you start to realize that you can gain control over your own thought process and to optimize your experience of being in the world, attending to what you want. We have metaphors we use to describe your mind in this process, and then you have an audio and visual experience that helps you visualize the thinking process.
What are some other applications?
Another great application relates to kids’ ADD [attention-deficit disorder]. It is a drug-free alternative to ADD medications. [And] obviously, experiences in personalized entertainment, being able to tailor movies with your own reactions and mental processes. It could enable an adventure-style movie narration that responds to your wants and desires, musical experiences that personally respond to you.
In the farther future, we are going to see responsive technology. The technology will know something about us, and then you use that information to support your interactions. Therefore, you will have emotionally responsive UIs, and you will have cognitive load management reading your e-mail, and your computer will know your love for cognitive load and whether you can handle more information presentation at that point or not. That’s about eight years away.
What is the potential here when it comes to neuromarketing?
I know that brands are very excited about the potential for neuromarketing. I hate neuromarketing. I vehemently am opposed to it, and I think it is in violation of human privacy. At this point, neuromarketing actually does not work. There are companies that are doing neuromarketing, but you can’t actually get better data than you can from eye-tracking and other focus group methods. It may work more effectively somewhere in the future.
I also think it is unethical to sell to people products based on their brains’ private reaction. There is a certain sanctity that should not be violated, at least in the early days. If it is violated, it is going to be very bad for the technology altogether.
People are afraid of people reading their minds, the government knowing their thoughts and all sorts of inappropriate uses that likely will never happen. The neuromarketing case of selling you stuff based on your brain’s reaction that is in some ways beyond your volitional control falls into the case that is not going to be good for the population, nor good for the EEG consumer market altogether.
It’s not practical and not ethical and not good for the industry, because it is going to hamper adoption, because people need to trust what is being done with their brain data. We have done quite a bit of research on this, the anthropological aspects of this technology. That tends to fall into the category of things that turn people off the technology.
I would guess there are some people who are freaked out about any brain wave-reading technology?
Definitely, there are some people who generally are freaked out. However, they are in the vast minority. When you talk to the average consumer, they are excited about technology. They are excited about what it can do for neurobrain health. They are excited about controlling stuff in their minds. They are excited about moving into the future as a species.
Then when you start to look at what they are afraid of, they are afraid of people reading their thoughts; they are afraid of the government and military knowing their thoughts. In addition, they are afraid of people marketing to them directly in their brain. It immediately shuts people down.
Let’s talk about the art side of it. You have some history with that too, right?
Yes. There are many artists who currently are interested in it. My background is also in art and in science. I started working in technology in 2002, at which point we did concerts where 48 people at a time could make music with their minds. And then we moved on to do many different musical engagements. There have been EEG art experiments since the 1970s.
Now that you have low-cost headsets, it is a magnificent field day for artists to be able to express aspects of our inner selves in new ways and to be able to visualize parts of ourselves that previously were hidden. The EEG brain waves are funny things. They are not tangible, and they are an expression of ourselves. It is hard to know exactly what it is expressing. Energy comes off us, and if you can visualize or personify or otherwise create experiences that allow people to touch these inner parts of themselves, you lead to pretty phenomenal transformations. It is an amazing and powerful art.
I used to make shirts with your brainwaves on them. I did them on two kinds of shirts. One was your standard T-shirt, and instead of a logo on your chest, it had your brain wave. Instead of spreading a corporate logo, you told the world what you really thought. There was a second version that was somewhat of a couture version that really was beautiful. It was layers of chiffon, and the brain waves were layered on the chiffon and it flowed beautifully as you walked.
How do you think this headset sector will grow?
I think it is going to grow dramatically. Right now, you probably have 200,000 headsets. It is a small number. We are going to see the volume of future adoption grow many, many times over the next three to five years when we start to have purposeful applications, when we have headsets that are sexy, when we have ways for people to engage in it that actually fit into their lives. Of course, that will mean there is a larger addressable market, more people that have headsets and more people that already are educated about the technology.
That will encourage developers to build better applications and then encourage large companies to enter the space. I can tell you, from our own relationships, there are a number of very large players who are entering and monitoring this space knowing that it is the next place to which they are going.