Brainwaves and Bobsleds: a talk with Peter Freer
The guy who holds the key to the future of brainwave tech isn’t what you’d expect. Chalk it up to an imagination prone to stereotypes, but when I heard about his revolutionary BodyWave technology, I expected the inventor to be a pasty, bespectacled, pocket-protector wearing nerdy type who spends his nights tinkering away in a basement. Despite the sophistication of the brainwave tech he’s developed, he definitely doesn’t fit the bill for an eccentric mad scientist. Over the course of the interview below, you’ll find that the tale of Peter Freer is a surprisingly logical and methodical story of a guy who saw a problem, thought up a solution, and worked tirelessly to make it happen.
Neurogadget: So I understand you guys had a booth this year at CES. What was your reception like at the show? How did people react when they saw BodyWave in action?
Peter Freer: It was tremendous, and actually kind of overwhelming. The booth was usually 10 to 20 deep every day all the time. Long, long show hours, too. It was tremendous because people had never seen anything like it. You know, everyone is used to using a headset to do this type of work, and when you simply put on a small arm band that looks like an iPod holder or something like that, then people are definitely fascinated. We got a lot of “how do you do that?” type questions because it borders on being unbelievable, it’s that new.
So I’ve done some reading i’ve read up on this technology, and it seems like it’s a pretty versatile device with tons of potential applications. What are some ways that BodyWave is being used right now?
Well, one of the things we did at CES was put the sensors in a steering wheel, a little Logitecth steering wheel, so you could grab it and control it by mind alone. What that’s related to is that we’ve developed an algorithm that detects drowsiness, and so when you grab the wheel, if the computer detects that you’re actually too drowsy to drive, or falling asleep, it will alert you so that you don’t crash your vehicle or injure someone.
Lets see, what else? Well, there are medical schools that train surgical students to pay attention a little bit better and monitor their attentive states during surgical procedures.
We’re also working with NASA – I cant go into too much detail here, but what was disclosed publicly in TIME was that they are using it for supersonic flight simulators to monitor the pilots in that testing.
We’re also finding applications in Nascar. We developed an application to teach them to put lug nuts on faster and to be in a peak state when they do work on the cars.
We’re working with olympic teams as well for peak performance training.
Whoa, let me stop you there – tell me more about that one.
Alright, so years ago we went down see the women’s bobsled team in lake placid New York. We had built them a 3D virtual bobsled run, and they could actually drive it down the track by mind alone – the more in a peak state they were, the faster the sled would go. If they started to lose that peak state of concentration, the sled would start to shimmy and start to tip over, which is drastic for a driver.
They were really skeptical about the whole thing, so they challenged us. They said we’ll be interested in taking this IF, we bring in 7 different drivers, and you tell us who the pros are and who the green drivers are. And so we hooked them up and it was rather simple to detect because, you know when a seasoned driver starts to lose their performance state and things start to get dangerous, she immediately pulls herself back into a focused peak state, right? But the green drivers – what do you suppose happened when they started to crash?
I suppose they’d freak out and start to lose concentration.
Exactly. So we could tell immediately who the seasoned drivers were and who the green drivers were – some of the green drivers couldn’t’ even recover at all. Some of them couldn’t’ pull themselves back into a peak state so much that they just stopped completely and went into total meltdown. and that was one of the things that they wanted to train the green drivers to do – to develop that kind of mental discipline that the seasoned drivers have, which is the big difference between the two. So that’s what we started training them to do; to come out of a loss of their peak state and recover into the peak state faster and without the self-chatter which causes the huge performance errors.
Here’s whats happening: when neurons fire in the brain – specifically pyramidal neurons, the ones that are closest to the surface of the cortex, right underneath the sukll – when these neurons synapse, when there is a communication between those cells, they emit a little electrochemical discharge. So when you have hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of them that firing at once – what we call volume conduction – there’s enough energy over the surface of the brain that it will turn into a field. And in the field, when it finally pushes through the meninges, the cerebrospinal fluid, the skull, the skin, and it reaches the surface of the skin, that’s where you’d have your typical EEG sensor, your typical headset. Of course, the electrical signal is smeared by this time because it has already passed through all those mediums, but what we found is that this signal doesn’t just disappear.
You can think of the brain as a radio tower – the signal does not just disappear once it reaches the surface of the skin. It’s still there, although when you try to access that signal away from the source, away from the brain, it diminishes quickly. It’s already tiny when it reaches the surface, so we had to use very careful amplification to pick up the signal. Then we had to write specific algorithms that detect and filter other things like heart rate and muscle activity so we could get a strong enough signal to be able to detect attention, peak performance. or drowsiness. After more than five years of research and development, we found that we could actually do that.
Obviously the benefits of this are that you don’t have to wear a headset, but it seems to me that there could be some drawbacks with this design. Is it less accurate or just as accurate as an EEG headset?
That’s a significant question, and the answer is that it’s totally non-clinical. You could not do clinical EEG work with BodyWave, as one would with a skullcap that has 20-40 sensors. But as far as consumer applications are concerned – sets from NeuroSky or Emotiv or anything like that – [BodyWave] can do all the same stuff that they’re doing. It’s not impossible to do – it’s virtually the same signal, we just have a different way of accessing it.
I’ve got to ask – how’d you get into all this, Peter? What led you to start Freer Logic and how did this whole BodyWave thing come about?
So, my background is actually in education – I hold a masters degree in education. And for years I was working with students both young and old who had ADHD, and to be honest with you, even with a graduate degree I was not trained to accommodate their needs. I was totally lost. Some of my methods were begging, pleading, trying to coax, coerce, bribe – whatever I could do to try to get them to pay attention. Eventually I went back to the university to ask my professors what to do, and they told me to do the same things we do today. They’d say “pull ‘em close to your desk, use proximity control, give ‘em a reward,” and so on.
I tried all that, but I still saw a fundamental problem. When you change someone’s environment, you’re not changing the human being. And that’s what’s happening in education today. When there’s a problem, we typically change [a student’s] environment, but the reality is that when they get into the workforce, nobody is going to change their environment for them. Nobody’s going to sit by them and give them a Snickers when they do a good job. It’s never going to happen that way. So the way I see it, we don’t need to change their environment, we’ve got to change the individual, and give them the skills they need to focus.
So i started cruising the – well, at that time it was ERIC (Education Resources Information Center). I don’t think we had much Internet back then. Anyway, I found that NASA was using feedback-based training to train astronauts to pay better attention. So I thought to myself well jeez, if I can adapt that to work in a classroom, I could teach both children and adults how to pay attention,” and so naively, I started a company called Unique Logic in 1994.
But prior to that, for 11 years, I worked three jobs six days a week so that could have enough money to develop the technology, and hire a programmer and an engineer to get this concept into reality. Obviously schoolteachers don’t make much money, so I worked for many, many years just to put the company together, and then finally formalized it in 1994.
A few years later, Unique Logic and Technology produced a product called Play Attention. At that time we used a bike helmet and we loaded sensors onto it because we were working in schools and we figured that if we put sensors on a bike helmet, they could drop the helmet on the floor, kick it around, and they wouldn’t really break the sensors. And so for years, we put these helmets into schools, and they actually had saline sponge covers so it was messy, but it was highly effective, and they got a really good signal.
So we worked that way for years. My real goal was to teach [students] skills that they could have forever. Whether it was to filter out distraction, be able to finish a test on time, be able to use their working memory, short term memory, or spatial memory more effectively, those were actual skills that could be quantified, that were not related to brainwave change. So I incorporated the neurofeedback just to grab their attention, because that’s the critical catalyst in having them make long term performance-based change. So I grabbed their attention just enough so that I could teach those skills, and what we found was absolutely amazing. When we do grab their attention, we could teach them those skills.
So then I patented the integration of those cognitive skillsets with neurofeedback, because nobody had done it. Now Play Attention is used globally, and it is the world leader in the educational market as far as feedback-based educational training with cognitive skillsets imbedded. Nobody else can do what we’re doing there. So that’s how it all started.
How did that eventually lead to the development of BodyWave?
Then eventually, people said ‘you know these helmets are fine, but everyone asks about lice issues in schools, and everyone complains about comfort and so on. So I started looking into the problem and I noticed that there were so many different manufacturers making headsets, and nobody wanted to wear them. There was a bit of a stigma attached to wearing a headset in schools, and [people] were just too embarrassed to wear them in public. We’ll wear things on our wrist, like a wristwatch, and we’ll wear an armband, but we are not going to put a headset on and parade ourselves in public.
So we decided that it just had to go on the arm, we worked for 5 years to get it, and off course it’s now integrated into the Play Attention system with my other company, and obviously now everything outside that we’re working on in Freer Logic to assist every part of the industry, or sport, or personal use that we can outside of the educational route.
That’s another thing I’m curious about – do you have a sort of grand vision for this device? It seems to me that in a device with so many possible applications, you have to be choosy about which ones you pursue – you just don’t have the resources to pursue every project. So what’s your vision for it, what directions are you headed with BodyWave?
Yes, definitely. so what we’ve done up to this point to fund the company is to create boutique applications. For example we’ve made applications for people in the nuclear power industry, NASA, and others that I can’t disclose to you because we’re under non-disclosure agreements. So we’re heading in those directions, and a few others.
There’s a three page article late in 2011 on me in TIME magazine, and BodyWave, and since that came out, we’ve started relationships with fortune 100 companies that will actually start to put [BodyWave] into a smaller form factor – a wristband – so that [people] can operate their TV’s and cellphones, and every other appliance or digital health portal. There are a lot of these companies that have digital health portals – apps that can collect biometrics for the person throughout the day. So lets say that at the end of the day you come home and you turn on your digital health portal, and it shows you how much time you were really paying attention during the day, how much time you were really stressed, how much time you were in a peak state, and how much time you were drowsy or sleepy – it would all be displayed for you on the screen. And then, the hope is that they would provide apps that would train your brain to be in a peak state longer, or maybe to de-stress. That is where we’re headed right now.
Speaking of apps – is there any chance you’re working on an API that’s open and available to the public? That’s one thing that we’ve seen in almost every major headset so far. I mean, you’ve got the Muse from InteraXon, you’ve got the Emotiv EPOC, NeuroSky MindWave, they’ve all got SDK’s so that software developers can make apps, third party apps for that hardware – any chance you guys are working on something similar?
You know, that has been brought up just this week, and this is probably the second conversation I’ve had about it. The only issue we’ve had with it is; since we’re working with some big-name companies at this point is the conflict with them using this and implementing the technology. They want first pass at it. And a certain amount of exclusivity, so we’re totally open to it, but its a tenuous relationship that we’re in right now, so we have to tread those waters very, very carefully.
So perhaps in the future?
Oh absolutely, I’m totally open to it because it’d be great if someone were making, say, wheelchair applications with it – things that would make a change in these niche markets that we’re simply not going to be able to have the time or resources to pursue. I think the idea behind it is great. However, whether we can do it in the very near future is dependent on the relationships with the companies that we’re currently working with and their desire to have some amount of exclusivity over some of these applications.
UPDATE: Due to the high number of emails and comments received from our readers, questioning the validity of the above described technology and how Freer Logic’s method relates to traditional EEG, we contacted Mr Freer again and asked him to clarify things a little. You can read his comments below and you can also download a PDF that Mr Freer shared with us to tell a little more on the background.
I’ve heard skeptic comments for a few years. There are NO published data that say our technology cannot be done. None. Just because the skeptics don’t know how it can be done, doesn’t mean it cannot be done. I remember when NeuroSky introduced their headset with dry sensors and the skeptics said, “It’s not EEG. It can’t be.”.
Old school theory, to which most of the skeptics adhere, maintains that the EEG signal is the product of the electrical pulse that runs down the axon. It is shielded by a myelin sheath which serves as an insulator. What is known now is that EEG is likely from pyramidal cells (hundreds of thousand if not millions have to fire synchronously to produce the energy necessary to push against dermal sensors) that sit close to the surface of the brain. It is not likely that the signal traveling down the axon produces EEG, but rather the ionization that occurs when the cells synapse. The ionization either excites the adjacent cell or inhibits it. Regardless, it turns out that this is a field of energy produced by volume conduction. It likely spreads across a wide surface of the cortex and then travels through the meninges, cerebral spinal fluid, skull, and dermis where it is smeared by those media. However, this field doesn’t just disappear even though it is quite small.
The secret lies in monitoring of this signal and filtering out muscle and heart. Good electronics, algorithms, and filtering can do it. Even NASA is using it for supersonic flight simulation monitoring.