An interview with Ariel Garten, Chief Executive Officer of Toronto-based “brain-sensing technology” experts InteraXon.
In a past blog post, we explored some of the science behind the headsets being used to transform My Virtual Dream participants’ brain waves into the spectacular projections and sounds that will fill the MVD dome at College and University on the night of October 5. The headsets being used for the installation have been generously provided by InteraXon, a Toronto-based firm that creates unique experiences leveraging the ever-increasing power of brain-sensing technology.
While the firm’s expertise have helped them design everything from a thought-controlled light show at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics to thought-controlled beer taps, they’re also hard at work on Muse, a consumer device that will let you engage with your brain waves from the comfort of your own home. In fact, the headsets being used during My Virtual Dream are an early prototype of the final Muse model, which ships in 2014.
To find out more about Muse and to hear InteraXon’s take on the future of the brain-sensing technology industry, we spoke with Ariel Garten, InteraXon’s Chief Executive Officer.
InteraXon specializes in “brain-sensing technology.” Can you explain that a bit?
Brain-sensing technology is all about being able to sense brain activity and translate it into something that’s meaningful for the user. We work with your brain waves—the electric information that comes off your head—and analyze that signal to present information about your experience back to you. For example, we can show you whether you’re focused, or listening, or relaxed. From there, there are exercises that you can do to learn to improve your brain’s capability—boosting your attention span, improving your memory or decreasing your stress level. We can also use the information we get from your brain waves to allow you to interact with content on your smartphone or tablet—for example, to play simple games.
What have been some of your favourite uses of this technology?
During the Olympics, we did this amazing project in Ontario House where people in Vancouver could control the lights on the CN Tower, the Parliament Buildings and Niagara Falls with their minds from all the way across the country. The project worked by measuring participants’ levels of alpha and beta activity. Participants could increase their alpha waves by relaxing, or increase their beta waves by focusing, and these two measures of alpha and beta sent control messages to the lights on the buildings.
We also really love using brain-sensing technology to help you learn to control and quiet your mind. We draw exercises from traditions like mindfulness and meditation, and can actually track your brain activity during these exercises to help teach you to calm your mind.
How has brain-sensing technology evolved since some of your earlier collaborations?
Our algorithms have definitely gotten better, but so has our ability to create experiences. Early on, we were just thinking about what we could control with our minds as we demonstrate the technology. One of the very first things that we built was a levitating chair. As you relaxed, the chair would rise. It was quite cool, but now, we’re all about applications that bring meaningful value to people’s lives—helping them understand their brain, improve their mental acuity, decrease their stress and develop healthy brain habits.
When do you think thought-controlled computing will “hit the mainstream”, or become a part of technology we use everyday?
Technology’s definitely getting there. Right now, we’re working on Muse, the brain-sensing headband, which goes to market in early 2014 for $269. Muse is the next generation of the prototype headbands being used in My Virtual Dream. While the MVD headbands use the same special technology as Muse, our final production model is a bit smaller, and doesn’t have earclips.
Muse will also come bundled with the Muse Brain Health System. Interfacing with iOS or Android devices, the system gives you exercises that teach you to control and quiet your mind, which helps you gain greater control over your mental abilities—improving your focus, your attention and your emotional intelligence. After some time with the system, you’re able to go back out into the world and be less distracted by external distractions—people yelling, sounds in your environment, or the “ding” of your emails coming in, for example—and you’re also better able to manage internal distractions like frustrations or stress or worrisome thoughts.
The Muse headset reminds me a bit of the Wii Fit board, which also introduced a new way to engage with health and fitness a few years ago.
There’s definitely a similar gaming component to Muse. The Brain Health System’s designed to be very fun and engaging, so it doesn’t feel like work. It’s more like a brain vacation, but in the process you’re teaching your brain and building healthy brain habits.
Tell me more about your role in making My Virtual Dream a reality. What was exciting about working on this project?
Baycrest is an institution that we really support in so many ways. The way that Baycrest and Rotman Research Institute are leading the way in brain health research and helping people to improve and manage their cognition throughout their lives is so aligned with what we’re doing, that we really wanted to be able to support Baycrest and My Virtual Dream. At InteraXon, we’re technology through and through, but we also love the world of art and the world of culture, so being able to partner with Baycrest in something that is an artistic venture that shows people a world inside of their heads is incredibly exciting.
We’re also working with Baycrest on a pilot study under grants from NSERC, and it was nice to be able to take the collaboration we were working on there and transform the tools we’ve made to make art and share it with people through Scotiabank Nuit Blanche.
What could come next for brain-sensing technology?
Well, in the far future, you’ll be able to control things in the world using only your mind—just like everybody wants! Brain-sensing technology is also going to help existing technology better understand you. Your computer will know that you’re frustrated, and change its interface so that you can interact more effectively. Your house will know that you’re cold, and make it warmer for you. While these kinds of developments are still a ways off, brain-sensing technology can already do some amazing things today. I can’t wait for you to try it!