Co-Authors: Paul Sukhanov & Sydney Swaine-Simon
The Experiential Technology & Neurogaming Conference 2016 showed off some of the cutting-edge technologies in the area of virtual reality, augmented reality, and NeuroTechnology.
The majority of the conference was spent listening to speakers as there were a large number of insightful panel discussions from leading technologists in the space. A few recurring themes were seen during the conference:
Convergence (Also the theme of the XTech hackathon) – that the confluence of these experiential technologies has allowed for fundamentally new forms of interaction. For example, using eyetracking (Eyefluence) in conjunction with VR to give a context for selection with a button press, or adjusting the output of a joystick based on your attentional state (Telekinesis).
Closed Loop / Feedback Systems – Akili, Atentiv, and qNeuro all utilized the concept of adapting the difficulty of the gameplay based on either player performance or measured cognitive load, and NeuroElectrics combines an EEG with a tDCS to enable simultaneous recording and stimulation of the brain.
Validation – That with the emergence of a new wave of digital therapeutics, there is a need to carefully show the validity of any claims for performance benefits.
Adam Gazzaley, Director of the Neuroscape Lab at UCSF and Chief Science Officer of Akili Interactiv, made this point in his Keynote speech on day 2 of the Experiential Technology & Neurogaming Conference, 2016. His words point to the limitations in mental faculties such as attention, working memory, and task management that prevent us from achieving the goals we set out for ourselves as humans, and his proposed solution was one of the recurring themes at this year’s conference: Using technology to create a closed loop between experience and experiencer in order to adaptively train one’s mind and thus, being able to go beyond a human’s limitations. Project Evo, which is being developed by the minds at Akili, is a video game which aims to treat ADHD by adjusting the difficulty of attention-consuming missions and thus balancing the cognitive load placed upon the gamer. This idea of closed-loop feedback was not unique to Akili’s product.
Atentiv is a direct competitor to Akili, also aiming to treat ADHD through a fast-paced action game that requires directed attention, but in combination with a custom EEG wearable for measuring the gamer’s attention. qNeuro gamifies math learning while adjusting the background distraction level based on measured EEG signals from the brain. Finally, Cerevrum offers an immersive and mentally-modulated Virtual Reality experience that, among other things, allows you to practice Public Speaking in a virtual environment.
Another approach to accelerating learning was demonstrated by the team from Halo Neuroscience, whose slick tDCS-enabled headphone product has been shown to give increases in motor training to professional athletes.
We tried the devices, and experienced a tingling sensation during a 5-minute warmup, but was not unpleasant at all. Daniel Chao,the CEO, mentioned that the idea of this product was actually created from years of research trying to identify the right fit for tDCS and discovered that athletes were the best early adopters. By using this technology during training sessions, athletes can hope to speed up the pace of their regimen and make the most of their long training hours.
Feedback systems were also seen during the poster session of the conference, where multiple researchers had developed different solutions to address things such as anxiety and cognitive decline.
For example one study was looking to see if games could modify attention bias, specifically a selective and exaggerated attention to threat, seen during the pregnancy period. These researchers developed a “zen” game which they found had a significantly positive impact over the course of a month of playing it.
Another study look at the efficacy of creating new cognitive training programs for preventing dementia in older adults, with or without Parkinson’s diseases. Researchers developed gamified brain training in 5 cognitive domains: attention, processing speed, sequencing, response inhibition, switching and used games like battleship solitaire, word games, candy crush like games to test this. Preliminary results suggested that the approach is feasible and well accepted.
Of course, with such a plethora of novel digital therapeutics, many may wonder how to determine the efficacy of these purported solutions, or indeed, whether there are any benefits at all to using the technologies. This question of validation was addressed in several of the panel discussions, most extensively in the highly engaging discussion “Digital Therapeutics: Healing the Mind” with the CEOs of Pear Therapeutics, Akili Interactive, Vivid Vision, Applied VR, and Clinical Director of Verily. Both Akili Interactive and Pear Therapeutics shared about their aim for FDA approval, which serves a dual purpose:
It convinces consumers that it’s not just new-fangled hocus pocus, but also affords the creators an understanding of how to better tailor methods that are actually helping people. Corey McCann of Pear shared his wisdom with those hoping to enter this burgeoning field: “Talk to the FDA yesterday”. The difference in attitudes between Silicon Valley (new, fast, disruptive) and the world of medicine (tried-and-true, slow to adopt, careful) was something touched upon by several other panelists, and the consensus
In addition to the amazing lineup of exhibitors and engaging panel discussions, there were a number of talks by leading researchers in the field who revealed findings that surprised many of the audience members
John Krackauer, director of the BLAM lab of Johns Hopkins University wowed us all when he showed results that indicated that recovery from a stroke can be aided by, paradoxically, inducing another stroke! It seems that there is a short window of opportunity following a stroke, in which the brain is hyperplastic and capable of quick rehabilitation. If this critical period is missed, the brain will never fully recover, unless it happens to re-enter the hyperplastic state by having another stroke (ethics committee members, don’t worry, these studies were conducted in mice, not humans). Krackauer’s own approach to human rehabilitation involves having patients embody a virtual avatar, Bandit the Dolphin, and perform robotically aided arm movements while gaining visual feedback on their actions through the game.
Another remarkable discovery was shown by Rosalind Picard, director of the Affective Computing Research Group at MIT, and co-founder of Empatica, a wearable watch for monitoring Galvanic Skin Response (GSR) to detect anomalous physiological signals such as those produced during seizures. She showed that GSR can in some cases be more indicative of mental state than the oft-relied-upon EEG signal. In the case of an epilepsy patient undergoing a grand mal seizure, she showed that while the EEG signal following the seizure is largely flat and uninformative, the GSR continues to show a heightened state of stress and alarm. Her device aims to use the GSR signal to inform a wearer of their stress-level by connecting to a mobile app on their smart phone.
Some other notable points of interest at Xtech was Open BCI who was showing off the next generation of their ultracortex and the Ganglion with TDCS shield prototype. Expect it to be released later in the summer of 2016.
Finally there was an exciting product demo of Hitachi’s new consumer NIRS headset. This two optodes headset would be sold for about 300$ and 5000$ if you are looking to get an SDK. If you are a developer, they will be providing three environments to do your development: Xcode IOS (version 8), Unity (Android OS, IOS), Android Eclipse (4.4, 5.0)
If you are interested in watching the talks yourself, all of the talks from XTech 2016 will be uploaded to their Youtube channel in the upcoming days.
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