Technology with attitude

Q&A with Personal Neuro Devices, developers of Neuronauts, UpCake and other BCI apps

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We at Neurogadget try to give you all around coverage of the consumer neurotech industry, but It’s still a rare treat to get to hear from the companies making apps and devices themselves. This week we’re bringing you a Q & A session with Chad Veinotte, director of neurogaming at Personal Neuro Devices (PND), the company that brought us UpCake, the first mind-controlled game for Android. We asked him about their latest title Neuronauts, the development process, the neurotech market, and what makes PND tick.

Neurogadget: How is Personal Neuro different from other neurotech software companies out there?

Chad Veinotte: I think we differentiate in a few ways. Many other neuro-tech companies are focused on building and selling a headset or building and selling apps but that doesn’t hit on the real problem the neuro-tech market faces. We need great headsets and we need great apps but we really need more great science.

If your amazing new headset has no truly compelling apps then it won’t sell and if your new neuro-app doesn’t do something new or push the limits of the market then it’s not going to be compelling. PND is focused on discovering new ways to use the headsets to learn more information about the user so we can offer really compelling, valuable information to the user through apps.

NG: Are you planning to start offering your software on other headsets any time soon?

CV: That’s actually one of our long-term project goals and we’re building towards it with our own Neuro-app Software Development Kit (SDK). This will help developers get going in neuro faster by abstracting the headset layer and giving them one unified way to handle headsets instead of forcing them to pick a single headset. The many headsets issue is fracturing the app landscape and doing damage to neuro by making it expensive and difficult for users and developers to get into the space; we see a chance to help reunite the app ecosystem and solve that problem.

NG: What sort of project are you thinking about doing next?

Chad Veinotte Director of Neurogaming at PND
Chad Veinotte – Director of Neurogaming at PND

CV: We’ve got a few apps in the pipeline, including some mental exercise apps and personal mental health and wellness apps. On top of those we have the SDK I mentioned and another big project focused on creating a data storage and processing system to give app developers the ability to look at mass amounts of data and discover more about a user’s mental state. This of course translates directly into better apps and more helpful apps for the users.

NG: What is your dream use of BCI technology (even if it isn’t possible with today’s tech)?

CV: My dream is to build applications and tools that improve the lives of the people who use them. I want to see tools to help those with physical impairments be able to communicate and move around their world more easily and applications to help people with mental impairments strengthen and improve their mental faculties. I got into BCI development because I saw a potential to help people and I want to make that vision a reality.

NG: What are your favorite BCI powered applications made by other developers?

CV: In the fun category I have to, hands down, go with 28 Spoons Later by MindGames. It’s fun, funny and is a good example of how we can make brain fitness something entertaining. It’s the BCI game I wish I had thought of first, but they beat me to it.

In the useful category I have to go with BrainBay. It’s a BCI toolbox that lets you use a variety of headsets and create data processing “machines” using a drag and drop GUI. It’s great for prototyping ideas and experiments. It’s also an open source project so it’s available freely for everyone.

Photo credit: Personal Neuro Devices

CV: I’m a big ideas kind of guy so I really love the early phases of a new project. I love to dive in and start building things and to see the idea become a reality. As projects go into the later stages, like debugging and user testing, I get a bit bored and really crave that exciting early stage again.

NG: How does the “ingame neuro-advertising” in Neuronauts work? What sorts of criteria do you use to detect cognitive states, and what change in ads can people expect in different states (excited vs relaxed, for instance)?

CV: For Neuronauts we developed an interest-based system. Essentially, it pays attention to your EEG before, during and after an ad is shown and determines if the viewer is interested in the ad. If they are we record that and over time build a profile of the user. We use that profile to determine which categories of ads to show to the user in the future.

When a person is interested in something, like an ad, there are changes in the ratios of several brainwave frequencies with respect to one another. We look for this pattern of change and, since we know which change represents interest, we can identify interest in the user.

NG: Do you think neuromarketing will become more ubiquitous as BCI technology progresses? Is that a good thing?

CV: I think that neuromarketing will become common as BCI becomes something we use every day. Modern ad providers like Google and Facebook leverage new technologies constantly. When users realize neuromarketing has no negative effect for them I predict concern over it will fade.

It’s a common misconception that BCI can “read minds.” In reality, the technology is more like a stethoscope for the brain. The stethoscope lets me know your heart beat and from that I can infer some other information like if you’re excited or relaxed but it doesn’t tell me what made you excited or relaxed. Current BCIs are much the same – I can measure your brain waves and see that you’re excited but I can’t read your mind and figure out what made you excited. I think that if consumers were a bit more aware of how BCIs work and what they can do then they would be less worried about them.

NG: What are your feelings on the emerging consumer neurotechnology market?

CV: The neuro market has a huge potential – some of it being mined now, some of it entirely untapped.

I often compare the emerging neuro space to the personal fitness space. Only a few years ago the idea of an app that tracks you via GPS and helps you evaluate the quality of your fitness routine was science fiction, as was sharing your fitness results with friends via Facebook or other social media. Today, physical fitness is massively social – apps share your workout achievements all the time and tools like the FitBit or Nike Fuel band make it easier than ever to track and keep on target for your fitness goals while, often, incorporating game elements to drive you on to your fitness goals

I think that we are getting to the point where we want those same benefits for mental fitness as we have for physical fitness and that opens a huge door for neurotechnology. I believe people want and need tools and apps to help them better understand their own minds and their mental fitness and we’re now developing those tools and apps and crystallizing that immense opportunity.