NeuroSky MindWave: Fun with Brainwaves

In last week's Gearhead I discussed, in part, the science of electroencephalography or EEG … the detection and measurement of the neurological activity of the brain via electrodes attached to a subject's scalp.

To recap, different parts of the scalp generate various frequencies dependent upon the subject's mental state and the product I discussed is designed to take advantage of these signals to determine how fatigued the driver of a vehicle is. The goal is reduce accidents and, as I discussed, it's a powerful concept.

Until recently, equipment to perform brainwave monitoring was very expensive and really only practical for laboratory settings. What has changed, as I discussed last week, is the development of cheap and sophisticated signal processing technology small enough to be built into head-mounted devices.

Last week's EEG electrode platform was built into a cap. This week I have a similar but less discrete system that detects both EEG and electromyography signals (or EMG), the latter being the signals generated by muscles.

The NeuroSky MindWave headset makes you look rather like you're auditioning for Star Trek, although the design is definitely more "Next Generation" than classic Star Trek.

The MindWave has two dry sensor contacts, one that touches your forehead and another that clips onto your left earlobe. Power is provided by a single AAA battery in the rectangular housing that sits behind your left ear and the power switch and power-on light are located on the top surface of the "hub" above your left ear.  The entire assembly is reasonably comfortable to wear for maybe an hour.

The combination of sensors allows the MindWave to detect when you are attentive and or meditative (you can be both at once), when you blink (EMG), and activity in a range of EEG frequency bands from 0.5Hz to 50Hz.

The determination of attentive and meditative states is done by monitoring several bands at once and is carried out by NeuroSky's proprietary algorithms embedded in the headset's signal processing software.

The MindWave headset communicates with a computer via a USB-interfaced "dongle" and requires driver software to be installed on the host system.

The driver software is straightforward to install under Windows (I used an HP laptop running Windows 7 Home Ultimate) and, while not hard under OS X (I used it on an iMac running OS X 10.7.2), it is a slightly clumsier process requiring you to run two downloads, one after the other in order.

After the drivers are installed you have to run the MindWave Manager application to register the MindWave headset with the computer. Once registered, the ThinkGear Connector, another driver that bridges between the USB driver and MindWave-enabled Flash applications, is loaded (it is configured to load automatically when Windows or OS X starts). There's also yet another driver, the CogniScore Connector, that tracks your achievements with applications that exercise and test your mental abilities and file their assessment of your skills with the "connector".

Really? Couldn't all of this architecture be hidden from the user and the MindWave Manager and the CogniScore Connector be built into the ThinkGear Connector?

This demonstrates a particular irritation of mine; the unnecessarily confusing of branding terms: MindWave, ThinkGear, CogniScore … this might have sounded cool to the engineers but to the people who are buying these products the slew of names is just pointless.

Anyway, you can download a variety of MindWave-enabled applications created by both NeuroSky and third-party vendors from the NeuroSky store. Some of these applications are free while others are seriously spendy (intended for academic and business use).

In the free category are a number of games. For example, there's blink/zone, a game in which virtual fireworks are launched from the bottom of the screen and how high they rise is dependent upon how focused (attentive) you are. When each firework reaches its maximum height you are supposed to blink to make it explode and the higher each explosion is, the more points you get.

What this and many of the other MindWave-enabled games are doing is to train your ability to concentrate and simultaneously relax using biofeedback. Biofeedback is defined on Wikipedia as "the process of becoming aware of various physiological functions using instruments that provide information on the activity of those same systems, with a goal of being able to manipulate them at will. Processes that can be controlled include brainwaves, muscle tone, skin conductance, heart rate and pain perception."

While some of these applications are engaging and interesting a few are just plain weird. One of these is called MindHunter and displays a cartoon countryside in which various animals, including dogs and bunnies, appear.  As you focus (become more attentive) cross-hairs align on the animals in this bucolic scene and when you blink you "shoot" them whence they are carried upwards in bubbles.

That's just what I want when I'm training my mind to be focused, attentive, and calm … to be killing puppies!

Many of these peculiar "games" are products of Beijing CUSoft Co., Ltd., and can only be classified as bizarre.

If you want an interesting visualization of your mental state I recommend the free Sekati Brain-Computer Interface featuring a field of blue balls.

The author, Jason Horwitz, says when your brain waves become readable the clue balls “snap in to focus. When the waves become focused & reach above a certain (configurable) threshold, gravity is removed … and the balls begin to float to the top of the screen like balloons (conversely a loss of focus reapplies gravity & the balls drop like rocks). The user may also control the direction in which the balls travel with the type of thought used; focus & concentration forces the velocity of the balls to the left, whilst a more relaxed, passive, observant state of mind forces the balls to the right (keep in mind; this is not mind-control; but rather advanced biofeedback – & in practice is a lot like using muscles you did not know you possessed)."

There's an API for the MindWave called the "MindSet Development Tools (MDT)" (because there's no reason not to use yet another branding element) that "supports development on Windows, Windows Mobile, Mac OS X, and Symbian platforms, in C/C++, C#, and Java languages."

Essentially the MindWave system creates a serial port in the host system from which you can read the data coming from the headset. This data is a stream of measurements that includes NeuroSky's own proprietary measurements (attentiveness and meditativeness) along with a breakdown of EEG data into various bands that can be interpreted as relating to potential generic mental states (tranquil, anxious, agitation, etc.).

Despite my sarcasm over the overly complex software architecture, the sloppy branding, and the bizarre Chinese applications, this is an incredibly cool system!

The benefits of biofeedback training are well established and, at $99.95, the NeuroSky MindWave is, by far, the lowest cost and most data rich EEG/EMG system available with which to do it. It's just begging for you to develop that killer application!

The NeuroSky MindWave gets a Gearhead rating of 5 out of 5!

Gibbs is developing his brain "fu" in Ventura, Calif. Your thoughts to gearhead@gibbs.com and follow Gibbs on Twitter (@quistuipater) and on Facebook (quistuipater).

Read more about data center in Network World's Data Center section.

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