In a basement room of London's Somerset House, eight different teams huddle around laptops. There's a common theme: One member of each group has some kind of wires coming out of their head.
This was the scene at a "brain hackathon" this weekend. Teams of neuroscientists, coders, and other interested parties have had one weekend to hack together something to "enhance, expand and augment the mind and the senses."
While brain hacking might already be happening to some extent, technical difficulties were a common theme across the event. Getting brain-computer interfaces to pick up signals reliably enough to do anything proved difficult, and the idea of controlling something just by thought using something as non-invasive as a headband is still relegated to fantasy. These are some of the more creative ways the weekend's hackers got around the limitations.
In the Rift
The first team to present called themselves In the Rift, and their idea hinged on pairing a load of different high-tech toys together to create a super-immersive virtual reality experience. They built a demo game using Unity that combined the Emotiv EEG headset with the Oculus Rift VR goggles, Leap Motion controller, and binaural headphones.
If that sounds like a lot to stick on your face, it is; when I demoed the game, team member Dmitry Ivanov left the Emotiv out of the equation as it wasn't easy to put on underneath the Oculus. I wandered around the game world as suitably creepy music surrounded me via the 3D effect of the binaural audio. The Leap Motion could detect my gestures, and when I raised a hand in front of my face, a fireball appeared that I could throw at bad guys. The EEG would offer another defence mechanism: the harder you concentrate, the stronger a defensive light field around you.
"It's very real, when you try it it's so different to everything you've tried before," said Ivanov. "It's a very different way of gaming, because you feel so much more engaged and you feel completely switched off from everything around you."
I was forced to agree when a bad guy killed me before I even saw him, with a chilling whisper right in my ear.
This team opted to used blinking as a control, as a type of brain wave called alpha waves can be induced by closing your eyes. They also applied this to gaming with a demo called Oculus Flap—a riff on Flappy Bird where you play as the bird—required you to blink, rather than tap a screen, in order to fly. It was powered by OpenBCI, an open-source brain-computer interface, and proved almost as difficult as the infamously tricky mobile game.
The blinking (or in this case winking) mechanism also powered the project that went on to win the hackathon—an app dubbed WinkIt. By calculating the difference in alpha wave readings from electrodes above each eye, the team could tell which eye was closed, and so used winks on each side for different controls. They demoed the app used in conjunction with a smartphone's music player: right wink meant play or pause; left wink meant skip a track. Impressively, it actually worked.
A particularly artistic idea that also got high praise from the judges tried to glean more from the user's brain waves than just harnessing them as a kind of switch. Emography, or "emotional cartography," would map a user's emotions real-time onto a Google Maps. Neuroscientist Miranda Robbins admitted that trying to measure emotion was a challenge. "I got them to try to make me cry a few times by telling me mean things," she said of their initial data collection process. The team's desk was littered with the debris of other emotional aids: empty Starbucks cups and a bottle of wine.
Ultimately they used the idea that the left frontal cortex is involved more in positive emotions, and the right in negative emotions, and combined this with heart rate. Developer Ben Styles suggested the idea could be used to help people who have difficulty expressing their emotions, or to build a database of people's overall emotions to see where hotspots of stress are and help inform things like traffic management.
Team NeuroCraft, which was made up of members of London Hackspace's brain hacking group, was the only one to attempt to go beyond monitoring brain activity and actually attempt to influence it. They tried to incorporate tDCS (transcranial direct current stimulation) into their design for a "neurosocial network." TDCS applies a small electrical current in the hopes of stimulating areas of the brain, but it's controversial.
A volunteer wore a full skull cap, much scarier-looking than the headbands used by most other teams. The idea was that his EEG data could be monitored and analysed anywhere, and that his brain could also be stimulated based on that information. The guinea pig winced when they turned the stimulation on, and the judges seemed a little antsy about the moral concerns of remote brain stimulation.
It's clear that the ability to monitor brain waves could open the door to a whole new genre of controller; a hands-free interface that could have applications from gaming to medical therapies. But between technical hangups and ethical controversies, the ideas that came out of the hackathon still seem quite a way off the mainstream.
"There are just huge obstacles to overcome with bringing any kind of BCI [brain-computer interface] into the real world," agreed Imre Bard, a researcher at London School of Economics and the event's organiser. "I wouldn't want to try to estimate the timeframe of when that can be overcome or whether it can be overcome at all."