Human brains are like wild animals, you learn more when you can watch them in their natural habitat. That's why five scientists in Milab at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) have combined the brain scanning power of the Emotiv EEG headset with a Nokia N900 smart phone. With their setup you can simply wear the Emotiv and the data from your brain scan will be processed and displayed on the phone in a cool looking 3D reconstruction you can rotate. The smart phone app will also give you information about your brain states and can of course pass your raw data onto a storage device or computer for further processing. Watch a short demonstration of the Milab Emotiv app in the video below. Emotiv's brain scanning technology doesn't provide nearly as much data as more complex EEG cap devices or fMRI, but the mobility could be a game changer. There's much to be learned by observing brains in their natural habitat, and the Milab setup (or devices like it) may even help us monitor and treat patients with neurological disorders in their own homes.
While the following video doesn't have any audio, it does step you through the basics behind Milab's concept. The touchscreen on the Nokia allows you to interface with the Emotiv headset, clearly displaying your brain activity in a 3D model. The phone can also be used to provide stimulus (such as a picture, video, or piece of music) for simple studies on brain behavior. With multiple headsets and multiple phones you can track neurological trends in group settings in almost any environment:
The specs of the smart phone app are actually quite impressive. Able to handle all of Emotiv's 14 channels simultaneously, the app can run for 7.5 hours with local logging of data or about 3.5 hours with remote logging. The 3D model is rendered at 30 frames per second, with only a 150 millisecond delay. The connection between the two devices is completely wireless, allowing you to freely use your hands or move in a small area without the need for portable power supplies, wires, or other encumbrances. On the whole, the system is really unobtrusive.
Which is entirely the point. A great deal of brain studies today are performed using wired EEG caps or by placing someone inside an enormous fMRI machine. In either case you have a very contrived lab setting that may well be influencing how someone thinks. Now, the control of a lab is very often necessary, but sometimes you're going to want to see how a brain functions when a patient goes about their daily life. That's where the Emotiv-smart phone setup could really come in handy. You can have dozens of people interacting in real world environments each with their own EEG headset recording their brain activity on their phone. Such studies would have less resolution in their data (14 channels isn't a whole lot in the grand scheme of things) but that limitation is offset by the vast improvements you have in the experimental setup.
Outside of research, Milab's approach to brain scanning could have a powerful impact on patients with neurological disorders. The Emotiv headset is small enough, and the phone certainly portable enough, that you could wear it for long portions of the day. Monitoring your brain states may provide insight into the onset of seizures, or allow you to correlate events with neurological effects. Hours of continuous recording will certainly give patients the ability to collect more data for themselves no matter what end that data is ultimately applied.
When Tan Le demonstrated the Emotiv headset last year, she heralded it as an opportunity for developers all over the world to create new applications for inexpensive EEG. Most of the projects we've seen arise involve using the Emotiv as a controller. This work in Denmark shows that there is an entirely other side to the Emotiv vision. With a cheap SDK (~$500) and cheap devices (each headset is about $300) Emotiv continues to open up brain scanning to a wide range of new possibilities. While this headset (and frankly all EEG) is limited in what it can record, I still hope we'll see many other universities explore this technology. In the future when fMRI or other approaches become miniaturized, projects like Milab's will be able to guide them into how best to apply their mobility to learn the most we can about our brains.
[image credit: Arkadiusz Stopczynski, Jakob Eg Larsen, Carsten Stahlhut, Michael Kai Petersen, and Lars Kai Hansen at milab DTU]
[source: milab at Technical University of Denmark]