Technology with attitude

Early OpenBCI researcher hacks a Hexbug and gives advice to other brain-hackers

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It comes as no surprise that as a professional engineer, Chip Audette has an affinity for making robots move with his mind. As he puts it, “I enjoy sitting on the couch watching TV, but a night of hacking is more fun to me than watching TV.” His interest as a maker began with building music synthesizers. As his interest with audio grew, so did his skills. Audette became enthralled with the electronics behind the technology.Now, despite his training as a mechanical engineer, he – like most other makers – can solder and work his way around a printed circuit-board. As a professional, he applied these skills to engineer better heart-rate monitor signal processing using EKG (or ECG) signals, but as of last year, his professional and personal hobbies have involved a different type of biofeedback; brain waves.

The progression from synth-geek to brain-hacker evolved out of an interest in signal processing. Audette said, “the body is just a crazy place with a lot of electrical signals going on.” The heart and the brain are both measurable in terms of signals, just as audio peaks are. Therefore, it’s logical that he would want to study how to process signals in the brain. Not to mention, Audette is also champion of the “maker” by putting in the hard work to develop the technologies he’s using to hack with.

Setup-Schematic2

In 2013, Audette was the principal investigator for a project funded by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) to “lower cost while still improving signal quality and channel count” for a “hobbyist-friendly connection”. In other words, Audette’s project would develop a system familiar to lab-grade brain-computer interface technology, but would be accessible to more than just academic researchers. With the rise of user-friendly BCI’s companies like Emotiv and Neurosky, Audette saw a need for a “High-Quality, Low-Cost, Multi-Channel EEG System for Non-Traditional Users.” The project would bring the thousand dollar set-ups down from their ivory towers and deliver them to the weekend warrior. The keyword being ‘accessible.’

Audette got together with Joel Murphy from OpenBCI to bring his research to market. Now Audette is having a ball testing it out. He wrote on his blog, EEGhacker.blogspot.com, on June 8th, that ever since he began working with OpenBCI, he has wanted “to control something with his brain.” Traditionally that would have been very hard to accomplish without some very expensive signal amplifiers and a healthy knowledge of neuroscience, but with the help of their open-source hardware (and some not-so-open-source hardware) he has been able achieve his goal of mind-controlled gadgetry.

Audette blogged about his creation of a mind-controlled Hexbug battle spider that uses a SSVEP (Steady State Visually Evoked Potential) paradigm to move the toy robot left, right, and forward, an OpenBCI board, and an Arduino Uno.

Success! Right?

Well not as much as he’d hoped for. Reflecting on the project, Audette said, “one always has grand visions of what you want to do, but then you’ve got to face reality.” Audette said that he wanted the robot to move left when he thought “left” and move right when he thought “right.” After doing his lit-review, he knew that simply wasn’t going to happen for him, because it barely happens on the academic research level. That doesn’t mean Audette isn’t proud of his accomplishments, though.

Audette knows that one day, someone will improve on his efforts. Audette said, “6 months from now, people will be stealing my code,” which is a good thing, to be clear. He feels solace knowing that one day his passion will help another curious brain hacker realize theirs. What’s the next step? He shared his advice for the maker that wants to have success in brain-hacking (or any self-motivated project, really) and it is to:

1) “Take little steps”: If you don’t have a successful night, it’s O.K. Just take lots of little steps.

and

2) “Sharing is motivating”: There might only be two other people reading about it, but they might think it’s really cool and that’s motivating.

By the end of the year, Audette predicts, others will begin tinkering with their own brain waves. Audette said, “I’m looking to share [these projects] to get people off the couch.” He hopes OpenBCI and projects like his can help them find their own reasons for getting off the couch.