Bridging the Gap Between Human and Computer: Neurable Uses BCI Technology to Help Users Leverage the Power of Brain Data

Bridging the Gap Between Human and Computer: Neurable Uses BCI Technology to Help Users Leverage the Power of Brain Data

TL; DR: Neurable’s brain-computer interface (BCI) technology enables humans to control software and other devices using their thoughts alone. It leverages electroencephalography (EEG) to record brain activity, analyze data, and provide users with real-time, 3D control of virtual and augmented reality systems. Neurable’s breakthrough products have the potential to shape the next generation of cognitive insight, especially as the company makes its move into the consumer market.

Future generations will find it hard to believe that once upon a time, telekinesis was limited to spoon-bending magic tricks. And it’s all thanks to Neurable, the Boston-based startup building the first neurotechnology tools to give users telepathic-like power in digital environments.

In addition to enabling 3D control of software and devices using the mind alone, the company’s brain-computer interface (BCI) functionality allows computers to measure human emotion and interpret intent. Neurable makes it happen through a method of recording brain activity known as electroencephalography (EEG).

Adam Molnar, Director of Partner Success at Neurable and logo

Adam Molnar, Director of Partner Success at Neurable, said the company is pioneering the commercial use of BCI.

By placing the human brain the center of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) platforms, the breakthrough technology can achieve incredible feats — think operating toys and playing video games using nothing more than the power of your mind.

Neurable is currently working with private partners to collect, visualize, and analyze brain data for VR, integrate brain analytics into apps, and create tools that respond to emotion. Ultimately, though, the company plans to introduce BCI to the mass market as soon as next year, fostering a society where humans can thrive without physical limitations.

“The idea is to develop a system that truly improves people’s lives,” said Adam Molnar, Director of Partner Success at Neurable. “That’s a high-level statement, but it applies to both the interactive aspects of Neurable and also the analytics — such as deriving algorithms that show changes in stress levels (something we’re working on with our current partners). The prospect of helping people improve themselves using this technology is fascinating.”

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Boston-based Neurable was founded in 2015 by James Hamet, Michael Thompson, and Dr. Ramses Alcaide, former student researchers at the University of Michigan. Dr. Alcaide’s Ph.D. research at the University of Michigan Direct Brain Interface (UM-DMI) lab on brain-computer interface (BCI) technology for people with debilitating medical conditions laid the foundation for Neurable, where he presides as CEO and president.

At the time, Adam said VR was enjoying its moment in the spotlight. But aside from a few companies, including Emotiv, NeuroSky, and InteraXon, almost everything BCI-related was restricted to laboratory work.

Market-wise, Neurable noticed that the evolution of computing devices was parallel to the development of computing interaction paradigms.

“For example, the personal computer: Before the mouse, keyboard, and GUI interface, people would see these large machines with punch cards, which is extremely inaccessible to any nontechnical person,” Adam said. “And smartphone technology really existed about a decade before the touchscreen made it the standard. We’re evolved to a point where we now touch and speak to our devices.”

With the advent of each major computing system, Adam said a concurrent evolution in interaction takes place over time, bridging the gap between human and computer.

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“So in 2016, when we saw the rise of VR and the idea of AR, we had a suspicion that those devices, especially AR, would necessitate a degree of hands-free, silent control to really take advantage of the medium,” he said. “So, we went out to build a prototype.”

Neurable’s first project, made possible through a modified HTC Vive VR system with EEG sensors along its interior, enabled hands-free control and produced neural analytics. The company unveiled the device, as well as a VR game demo made in partnership with eStudiofuture, at SIGGRAPH 2018 in Los Angeles.

The game, Awakening, positions the player as a child bestowed with telekinetic powers in a “Stranger Things”-esque government science laboratory. Using thoughts only, the player must escape from prison, bypass guards, and break free of the lab. The game is controller- and voice-free, so players use their eyes to focus on a flashing object that they may then select, pick up, or throw.

“It was a really exciting demo, but it was a little bit hard to commercialize that early on, especially for VR,” Adam said.

Shaping the Next Generation of Cognitive Insight

The company’s VR-compatible, non-invasive hardware is easy to use, featuring six dry EEG sensors with two-stage amplification and support for Tobii eye-tracking — a technology that uses illumination to create reflections on the eyes for accurate monitoring. Because the EEG devices are dry, they do not require gel or sensors implanted surgically within the skull (ouch!).

Its software tools are equally user-friendly; compatible with any wearable sensing device or EEG system that streams data using a lab streaming layer (LSL). The software can be integrated with Unity, C++, and C# environments, and Neurable offers data export functionality and a web portal for 3D data visualization and analysis.

To make integration within existing apps a breeze, Neurable provides NeuroInsight APIs, which deliver raw data and cognitive insights that can be used to conduct user research, tailor user experiences, and increase the safety of working environments. The company’s NeuroSelect SDK, on the other hand, enables intuitive user interactions in mixed reality environments by converting signals from the brain into human intent.

Eventually, Adam said BTI will impact all aspects of business — from staff using VR simulation for training to marketers interested in consumer interactions with digital content. It has also demonstrated use cases in transportation, architecture, engineering, construction, home automation, healthcare, and the auto industry. For now, Adam said it is essential for the company to maintain as narrow a focus as possible.

“The challenge that BCI companies have, in general, is identifying problems that BCI is especially suited to address,” he said. “I think we have the most to gain in cases where we can get a perspective from an individual without them or someone else introducing bias to the data.”

At the moment, Neurable is working with several partners on initiatives for which BCI is a clear fit. “One of the things that we heard time again was that people wanted a neurally derived measure of stress,” Adam said. “We knew we could do that, so we went on a campaign to develop a cognitive analytic tool suite.”

Moving into the Consumer Market

Neurable is currently in the process of developing its first mass-market consumer device, which could be released to the public as soon as next year.

Adam said he believes that the company has developed a high degree of awareness when it comes to the BCI space, especially since it has watched the market evolve from infancy to a world where BCI companies are getting acquired left and right.

“We have had a really good perspective throughout all of it, and I think that’s why our next product will be as successful as I think it would be,” he said.

Christine Preusler

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