Remember that wacky mind-controlled lifecasting camera we wrote about a while back? What if you had your own idea for a brain-computer interface—that is, a product that you control by thinking certain thoughts or visualizing certain actions—but you didn't have a team of graduate students and a neuroscience lab at your disposal? OpenBCI, a Kickstarter project by Conor Russomanno and Joel Murphy, aims to fill this need by offering makers, hobbyists, and other geeky tinkerers a fully open-source prototyping platform for designing whatever mind-control UIs they can dream up.
"Existing BCI [brain-computer interface] technologies fall somewhere on the spectrum between functional and usable, and nobody has optimized that relationship to create a truly practical system," Russomanno tells Co.Design. "The only thing that will lead to the tipping point of BCI practicality is simultaneous and rapid hardware and software iteration; Joel and I both believe that this type of rapid technological innovation cannot take place behind closed doors, hence our unfaltering mission to keep OpenBCI totally open source and include as many people of varying disciplines as possible."
In other words, the only thing that'll get you the mind-controlled quadcopter you've always wanted for Christmas is a horde of hackers working on their own odd projects, advancing the design and user experience of the technology as they go. OpenBCI isn't a mainstream, plug-and-play device itself. Instead, it's a workbench for experimenting on what those devices could or should be. "OpenBCI is the question, not the answer," says Murphy. "What can the world build when access to every facet of the technology is at their fingertips? 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; someone else will build the castle."
As you might expect from a team that compares its product to Arduino, OpenBCI's hardware might look opaque or intimidating to non-hackers. It consists of a small hexagonal circuit board which accepts inputs from a set of electrodes that measure EEG activity from the brain through the scalp. The board's outputs can then be linked to whatever hardware or software you intend the EEG activity to control. "Approaching the OpenBCI platform will require, at the very least, novice programming skills," Russomanno admits. "But with time, the open source community will create applications and derivative products that others can jump into without any background in programming. Additionally, a big part of our future gameplan is coordinating and hosting a series of hackathons around the USA and hopefully some international cities."
Russomanno and Murphy don't think that BCIs will become mainstream anytime soon as a sole way of interacting with consumer technology; instead, they believe these UIs will complement biometric sensors and other wearable data-tracking devices. But until then, a platform like OpenBCI can unlock a ton of innovation—not just for makers, but for startups and design studios who simply want to experiment. Making EEG-controlled novelties is one thing, but designing better medical devices to enable paralyzed people to move their wheelchairs, or locked-in patients to communicate, is a truly noble enterprise. By open-sourcing this technology, OpenBCI could help make both kinds of design—and anything in between—that much more effective.