Last year, a pair of creators crowdfunded OpenBCI — an open source software suite and interface board that made biosensing — taking readings of electricity in the human body, especially the brain — far more affordable and accessible. Now, the same people are back with the pushes this even further with new, even more affordable gear.
Electroencephalography has been evolving for nearly 150 years, but up until very recently it was exclusively the domain of researchers and doctors with access to the expensive, high-tech equipment and software required. Lately there have been fledgling steps to bring direct brain sensing into consumer technology for various applications, but in today’s world of makers and tinkerers, there’s exciting potential if the basic technology is made available to all. OpenBCI is all about making that happen: the first iteration focused on open-source software and a more affordable interface, but still required lots of equipment and know-how to set up and make use of a full biosensing rig. Now, they’re busting through those remaining barriers.
The new OpenBCI offerings are an even more affordable interface board — “The Ganglion” — and a kit for building customizable 3D-printed headsets. The goal is to make the technology feasible for anyone who’s interested — high schools, makers, independent researchers, and anyone operating with a shoestring budget. The Ganglion interface clocks in at a mere $100, and the parts for the headset (including new dry electrodes, eliminating the need for a lengthy and messy application of gel to a subject’s head) only $350. The software, as well as the plans for 3D printing a headset, are all fully open source and available for free on Github. All told, for less than five-hundred bucks, anyone can start experimenting with technology that not long ago was almost completely inaccessible.
What could be bad about giving people easier access to important tools for cutting edge science and engineering? Not much, really. As with most such things, there’s a question as to what people will actually do with it, and how many really have a need for it — but that’s thinking backwards. Apart from the obvious learning value if this is brought into schools, there’s the fact that much of the untapped or unseen potential of brain-sensing technology stands to be unlocked by getting it into the hands of more people. Direct brain interfaces for computing have been possible for some time now, and many experiments in that area continue to happen, but these cheaper OpenBCI tools could be a major step towards making this exciting technology mainstream and finding new and useful applications for it.
High-tech Kickstarter projects can be divided into two camps: those focused on establishing a consumer brand, with closed technology and pages riddled with trademark signs and proprietary language, and those that are committed to expanding the world of open source, open hardware, hackable technology and interoperability. It’s extremely gratifying that OpenBCI is so firmly in the latter camp. For the time being, a brain-computer interface isn’t something average consumers are going to go pick up in a sleek box like a new iPhone — but it is something that developers and engineers are going to want to experiment and play with. If the technology were made affordable in the form of a locked-down consumer product, we’d still see lots of experimentation, but it would rely on a lot of hacking and reverse-engineering. Thanks to OpenBCI’s commitment to open source and hardware, people with exciting ideas don’t have to jump those hurdles. Thanks, OpenBCI!