Want to Read Your Own Mind? Device Promotes Performance
Thought-reading machines may be on the cusp of a trendmore companies are beginning to design low-cost devices that can give consumers at least a glimpse into their own brains. One of these products, called the BrainAthlete, hit the market in Japan last December and will be available in the U.S. within months.
B-Bridge International and NeuroSky, the companies that created the BrainAthlete, claim that the device can track signals in the brain called delta and alpha waves, and then use them to determine levels of concentration. The companies are now marketing it as a way for athletes and coaches to monitor mental patterns and study how they relate to physical performance.
It's like exercising a muscle you never even knew existed, said Tansy Brook, a spokeswoman for NeuroSky.
The BrainAthlete tucks a single electrode into a sporty visor. When the user wears it, it presses up against the forehead and collects electrical impulses from the frontal cortex that can then be studied by the user.
The technology itself is a stripped-down version of a technique neuroscientists and doctors have been using for decades called electroencephalography, or EEG. In a research setting, EEG setups look like a mess of wires hatching out of a patient's head. Electrodes stuck to the scalp pick up tiny electrical signals, the weak ripples of thought. The more electrodes you have, the better you can filter out irrelevant parts of the signal and hone in on the real stuff.
Neuroscientists accustomed to working with the big guns have said the technology will need some work, however.
They don't work so well yet. Let me just put it this way, said Lucas Parra, a neural engineer at the City College of New York.
Although he has not personally tried the BrainAthlete, Parra explained that EEG technology has not come far enough to support serious consumer applications.
For the BrainAthlete to work, two major innovations are still necessary, Parra told InnovationNewsDaily. By the time the signals in the brain reach the scalp, they are very weak. In the lab, people solve this problem by attaching the electrodes with a gel that maximizes the amount of current entering the wire, and by then running the signal through a powerful amplifier.
Although there is a consumer EEG device available that uses wet electrodes, an ideal design would not require any gel or saline. An effective dry electrode simply does not exist yet nor is there an amplifier powerful enough to support it, Parra said.
While it's difficult to determine how well the first wave of consumer EEG devices works, what's clear is that such devices will only get better. Electrodes are improving, and so are amplifiers. Parra expects that devices could soon come to market that are not only neat, but also useful.
It's not today, but maybe in a year or two, Parra said.