Innovation is all about putting on the proverbial thinking cap. Now engineers are vying to produce an actual thinking cap – at least one that can measure the most rudimentary signals of thought. The US Department of Defense is pushing for the development of cheap, wearable systems that can detect the brain waves of people and display the data on smartphones or tablets.
This past spring, the DOD awarded four companies design grants through the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, which is designed to spur the development of technologies not already available in the commercial market. A Phase I grant in the amount of $100,000 has been awarded, with those entities competing for a possible Phase II grant that could total $750,000 or more.
The Pentagon has called for the development of a small, low-cost device (perhaps as cheap as $30) to measure electroencephalography, the voltage fluctuations that occur as neurons fire within the brain. The device would work in conjunction with an app to deliver real-time information on neural activity to a tablet or smartphone.
While EEG readings are most often used to provide data on those with head injuries or who suffer seizures, the DOD notes that more recently EEG has been explored commercially in "neuro-marketing" and to provide neuro-feedback via brain-computer interfaces, allowing people to move objects or play computer games with their mind.
While an array of technologies can give indications of brain activity, EEG offers several advantages – mainly portability and cost. But the technology has several hurdles, including the knotty problem of trying to get an accurate reading of tiny impulses in the brain even as bone, scalp and hair muddle the reception.
In the near term, the DOD sees cheap EEG devices being included in field first-aid kits to provide near-instantaneous analysis of an injured soldier's brain activity.
"For instance, if somebody was exposed to a blast and an individual goes out who is the medic, ... within his kit he has this EEG system folded up," says Brent Winslow, lead scientist at Design Interactive in Oviedo, Florida, which is working on the SBIR grant. "The individual just wears this unit for two to five minutes and you are able to assess quantitatively the presence of an injury."
While there are limits to what level of "thinking" such a cap can detect, an accurate, affordable and portable EEG system could open up other applications.
"The thing about EEG is that we are detecting what we consider a coarse signal," says Michael Elconin, CEO of San Diego-based Cognionics, another SBIR entrant. "The question is how much information you can extract from that signal. For the foreseeable future – and in my opinion, probably forever – we will not be able to use EEG to figure out what people are thinking.
"One of the things we can sense with EEG ... [is] what I’ll call 'states of consciousness,'" Elconin continues. "Say you are a sentry looking out across a field [and] to make sure no one is there. You are looking and looking, and all of a sudden you see someone running: your brain will generate a very specific brain wave pattern because it recognizes something it is looking for."
Massachusetts-based SI2 Technologies has previously worked on technology embedded in soldier helmets to better spot traumatic brain injury. The company hopes to use digital printing technology to produce comfortable caps embedded with sensors to capture EEG data.
Also working on the problem is Hanover, New Hampshire-based Creare.
It is not the first time the U.S. military has brainstormed ways to tap the inner recess of the mind. In 2008, the DOD awarded $4 million to researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, the University of California Irvine and the University of Maryland to investigate ways people can communicate using brain waves.
At the time, Army Research Office manager Elmar Schmeisser acknowledged in a statement to the American Forces Press Service that "the mathematics behind this is fierce" and any breakthrough could be two decades distant. But in 2011 University of Maryland researchers indicated they were making major headway in the effort.
The imagination is the limit when it comes to any thought of a brain-wave reader app in every smartphone – but the DOD sees immediate potential as an educational tool in biology classes, biology classes, with students recording their brain activity and downloading data to a tablet.
And the DOD is thinking bigger things on the commercial front – with ready access to brain-recording devices and apps, neuroscientists might be able to crowdsource solutions to neuroscience problems, collectively.
Wrap your mind around that.