Have you ever wanted to build your own (safe) brain-computer interface device? This is the year you may be able to do that, thanks to the folks at OpenBCI. They’re wrapping up a successful Kickstarter project this week to create a “customizable and fully open brain-computer interface platform that gives you access to high-quality brain wave data.” We had the opportunity to speak with OpenBCI co-founder, Conor Russomanno, about the project:
Shiv Gaglani, Medgadget: How did OpenBCI come to be?
Conor Russomanno: Joel and I first met one another when I was his student at Parsons MFA Design & Technology back in 2011. For the class I built Braincap & Brainsync, by hacking apart a toy EEG system called the Mindflex. Braincap was a baseball cap with an EEG sensor, an Arduino, and a Bluetooth module. BrainSync was an application that received and recorded the data output by Braincap. BrainSync also allowed the user to record environmental stimuli, significant events, and data about his or her state of mind. The hope was to find quantitative correlations between things that we typically see as qualitative, using EEG as the primary connector.
About a year later (last spring), Joel was asked to subcontract for a government grant to build a low-cost, high-quality, open-source EEG system. He took the job and, remembering my project, asked if I wanted to be involved. I said yes without hesitation. We spent the beginning part of the summer tearing through the ADS1299 data sheet and making the first prototype of the OpenBCI board. Joel did all of the hardware design and I helped out in writing the initial firmware to communicate via Arduino’s IDE.
Then, last September, we took the first prototype of the OpenBCI technology to NYC Maker Faire, and it was a huge hit. We didn’t expect to get the attention and praise we did, but lots of people were asking us when they could get their hands on the tech. That’s when we decided to start preparing for a Kickstarter. Joel spent the next few months iterating on the hardware while I took the lead on building out the OpenBCI website, coordinating a pre-Kickstarter hackathon, and finding the right guy to do the video for the campaign.
Since then we launched the Kickstarter and we have been riding the wave ever since!
Medgadget: Who are you hoping will support your Kickstarter and, more importantly, use OpenBCI?
Conor Russomanno: OpenBCI is intended to be a tool, not an immediate solution to the large BCI design
challenge. There’s a phrase that Joel and I tossed around early on that’s pretty cheesy but good: ‘OpenBCI is the
question, not the answer… what can the world build when access to every facet of the technology is at their fingertips?’ It is one of our core missions to make this technology as approachable as possible. This is one of the reasons we are providing the option of an Arduino core to the OpenBCI board. Arduino revolutionized the field of electronics prototyping, making it accessible even to ambitious teenagers. We are building on top of their energy and approach and trying to do the same thing for field of BCI. OpenBCI is designing the lego blocks; others will build the castle.
Medical grade BCIs are often used in assisting people with damage to their cognitive or sensory-motor functions, however, more and more we are seeing affordable BCIs emerge in neurotherapy applications that assist people with ADHD, anxiety, phobia, depression, and other common psychological ailments. Both neurofeedback and biofeedback are starting to be used more frequently by artists, musicians, dancers, and other creative individuals who want to find new ways of connecting people with the world around them, making more immersive experiences. There’s great potential for research in psychology and behavior studies with portable EEG devices that can record brain activity in real-world environments. As the tools for interfacing the brain become more widely available, we will see BCIs come out of medical facilities and labs and become a bigger part of our everyday lives. We envision BCIs revolutionizing everything from neural gaming and augmented reality to meditation and concentration aids. We hope to see OpenBCI lead to toys and tools we haven’t even thought of yet!
Medgadget: There are a lot of commercial EEG systems popping up. Besides being open, what makes OpenBCI different?
Conor Russomanno: Other than the fact that OpenBCI is totally open source, I think the big different between OpenBCI and other EEG systems is its customizability. The hardware is programmable; it has an integrated microcontroller with digital and analog pins, similar to an Arduino and can be programmed through the Arduino IDE. In addition it comes with the option of an 8-bit or 32-bit core allowing for a system optimized for ease of entry or sheer horsepower. In addition, we did not want to lock users into a fixed electrode system. This is why we created the first 3D printable EEG headset, the “Spider Claw 3000.” It is customizable in its mechanical design, allowing a user to place up to 16 electrodes in 64 different locations that are based on the International 10-20 System. In addition, the design files themselves will be posted on our Github, allowing for even further customization by the open source community. We can’t wait to see what people do with the technology. It is truly designed to be built on top of.
Medgadget: Can you describe the specific components of your platform?
Conor Russomanno: At the core of the OpenBCI platform is the OpenBCI Board which has the Texas Instruments ADS1299 ADC integrated. In addition the board has the option of two different integrated microcontrollers, either the 8-bit Atmega328 (with the Arduino bootloader) or the 32-pit PIC32 (with the Chipkit bootloader). The board has the same number of analog and digital pins as a standard Arduino and will have an SD-card slot and bluetooth capability. If we hit our stretch goal of 150K, every board will also come standard with a 3-axis accelerometer.
Recently added to the OpenBCI platform is the first 3D-printable headset for the OpenBCI board to mount onto, this first version has been dubbed the Spider Claw 3000. It is still in its early stages of development, but will serve as a cheap and customizable head piece for the board and a variety of different electrodes down the road. I reiterate that this headset is still in the early stages of development, as are the suite of electrodes that will work with it and the OpenBCI Board.
The last major piece of the platform is the software suite. Right now we have a growing collection of software on our Github. This is where all stable versions of code for interfacing the OpenBCI board will go. Additionally, we plan to have well-designed and well-documented getting started guides listed in our Github and hosted on our website.
Medgadget: What are your backgrounds in neuroscience and engineering?
Conor Russomanno: Joel is a self-taught electrical engineer who’s academic background is in kinetic sculpture.
Joel is one of the co-founders of the PulseSensor. I received my bachelor’s in civil engineering & engineering mechanics from Columbia University and independently researched and developed applications around brain-computer interfaces for 2 years during my MFA in Design & Technology at Parsons School of Design.
Kickstarter link: OpenBCI: An Open Source Brain-Computer Interface For Makers