From the Field: New Horizons in Neuro-hardware Design
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, a young Jedi raised an X-wing out of the Dagoban swamp using only the power of her mind. Or, not too long ago and on planet Earth, this Neuroscience Associate got to test out The Force Trainer II: Hologram Experience, a toy that teaches children to use “the force” to move holographic images. Similar to its 2009 predecessor, the Force Trainer II uses a wireless electroencephalograph (EEG) headset that picks up the user’s ability to focus, as measured in brainwave activity. This activity is measured in neural Hertz (Hz) frequencies picked up from the scalp (1). These neural frequencies represent different types of behavioral activity: Delta waves (< 4Hz) measure sleep, Theta waves (4-7Hz) measure drowsiness or response inhibition, Alpha waves (8-13Hz) measure relaxed wakefulness, and Beta waves (14-31Hz) measure concentrated focus and alertness (1). The goal of the Force Trainer II is to teach the user how to use their Beta waves to perform a task. In this case, when the user successfully focuses on an object, they move it. This tech, along with other similar systems, was on display at the annual NeuroGaming conference in San Francisco, CA. At this conference, I battled a holographic Darth Vader and shopped for shoes via a virtual reality interface. I also attended a series of panels that covered the vast applications for these rapidly evolving tools.
While each panel focused on different applications of the tools, a major theme at the conference was the increasing usability of neuroscience devices. A shift is taking place in the industry—hardware designers are moving away from technical products targeted at expert users and placing emphasis on more accessible products targeted at non-expert users. Tan Le, CEO of Emotiv Inc. (2), shared her thoughts on how hard it is for an outsider to study the brain, given the sheer cost of traditional EEG equipment. Le, who started her career as a lawyer, saw the utility in studying the brain but was faced with the technological complexity of grant-funded EEG systems that were primarily used in academic or medical research settings. She and her team developed affordable and wireless EEG headsets paired with software that effectively calculates, measures, and tracks user metrics such as focus and engagement. According to Le, the implications of this tech are multidisciplinary in nature – wireless EEG products can be used to improve gaming experience (e.g. when used as a controller for gameplay) but also have broader research applications (e.g. what are these focus and control metrics telling us about both the human brain and behavioral outcomes?).
Indeed, Chris Berka, CEO of Advanced Brain Monitoring (ABM), believes the research applications of wireless EEG headsets, including those developed at ABM, can extend to great advancements in personalized healthcare. Specifically, she believes that pairing a neural profile with an individual’s general health records will help physicians diagnose better treatment options. As with Emotiv headsets, ABM headsets also simplify user experience by offering metrics such as distraction and drowsiness3. One example involves the use of wireless EEG data in patients with ADHD. Physicians can monitor changes in the patient’s level of distraction to test the efficacy of treatment, and they can use the device as a treatment tool itself by teaching patients how to shift and control their distraction levels via EEG data. Thus, physicians can use neural signals to train patients to improve behavioral outcomes. Think of wireless EEG devices as a sort of FitBit for the brain.
Given that context, imagine (if you will) how much one could shift his or her neural activity in other contexts. Much like wearing a FitBit to track and increase the number of steps I take per day, could tracking my neural activity help me be more productive at work? One example and a growing area of research is the implementation of wireless biometric tools in organizational research. Tools such as EEG headsets from Emotiv and ABM could be used to track when individuals in a hectic work environment get distracted. For example, construction workers often have to attend to multiple things at once, and distractions could lead to workplace injury. In an effort to reduce injury, employees can learn when they are the most distracted, whether it is conscious or subconscious, and use that information to increase their focus. These seemingly subtle changes have a direct neural effect, which, in turn, have a big behavioral effect on performance and safety outcomes. Thus, in addition to serving as an advanced tool in gaming and medicine, these non-invasive neural tracking systems can also serve as a useful tool to improve Daily Operating Rhythms in the workplace.
John T. Cacioppo, Louis G. Tassinary, Gary Berntson, 2007. Handbook of Psychophysiology, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom.