OpenBCI: Bringing an Open-Source approach to Brain Science and BCI

Teon BrooksDevices, News1 Comment

Things have really been picking up at OpenBCI this Fall and they are ending the year with a bang with their newest Kickstarter campaign!

Joel Murphy (@safeforrobots) and Conor Russomanno (@russomanno15), the co-founders of OpenBCI (@OpenBCI), which stands for Open-source Brain-Computer Interface, have been pushing the limits of making high-quality brain recording tools for scientists, artists, and hackers alike, while maintaining low cost and accessibility to all.

Joel Murphy, CoFounder of OpenBCI, Neurogaming Conference 2015

Joel Murphy, CoFounder of OpenBCI, Neurogaming Conference 2015

I first discovered the company when my friend and colleague, Andy Heusser, and I were looking for a portable and cost-friendly EEG to hack on. We’re both (super cool) nerds and we’re interested in using neurotechnology outside of the lab. The traditional EEGs are great devices: they can detect millisecond, and sometimes even sub-millisecond brain activity!, but they are wired systems from the point of contact on your scalp to the input into the computer. Also, because of the electrode design choice, they tend to use conductive gel, which is typically used to improve signal quality of the tiny electrical voltage changes on the scalp.

But with great power comes a great price, with a minimum of three zeros….until now. We discovered the OpenBCI website and found an 8-channel wireless EEG system for $500 and they now have our money. Our criteria for the purchase was as follows: we wanted a wireless system so that location wouldn’t be a problem, we wanted access to the raw data so we could see exactly what the board was doing, and we wanted a community so we could nerd out with other people using the system. We found all three with OpenBCI.

Conor Russomanno, CoFounder & CEO OpenBCI, inspecting a recently assembled Ultracortex

Conor Russomanno, CoFounder & CEO OpenBCI, inspecting a recently assembled Ultracortex

The company’s approach is built on three tenets: transparency, accessibility, community. There are very few companies out there who put it all out on the line for the world to see. The hardware is completely open-source, that means, all the specs, all the documentations, designs, firmware, etc. are available online for your perusal. This is how they maintain transparency about what they are doing to the world and also it also helps spark innovation. Sidenote: this guy built an open-source robot, and it’s awesome! Many other tech companies are taking this type of lead to opening up some part of their company (Google’s TensorFlow, Apple’s Swift). OpenBCI built the open-source philosophy into the company from day one.

OpenBCI is striving to make this technology available for everyone to use. Although brain is baked into its name, these boards are capable of sensing any bio-electric potential. For instance, you can measure your eye movements by hooking up electrodes around the eye to measure its electrooculogram (EOG), and you can do the same thing for different muscle groups and measure its electromyogram (EMG), and yes, you can use it on your Lub Dub and measure your electrocardiogram (ECG/EKG). Thus it’s a bio-sensing device capable of measuring all of your electrical goodness. The 8-channel system is such a bargain to get research-quality recording at home on your couch. To make it even more accessible, they’ve recently launched a new Kickstarter campaign to bring to market a 4-channel bio-sensing board. It allows unparalleled access to measuring different signals coming from your body and sent wirelessly to your device. This is great for students who are just learning about how electricity is one of the primary currencies of communication in the body all the way to researchers with targeted questions.

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Gadgets galore at the OpenBCI booth, Neurogaming Conference 2015

Lastly, community. OpenBCI has a thriving community online with a community board and a forum to share news on new brain technology, highlight new applications of BCI, and to chat with friends. The life force of the community is electric karma, which gives a tingling good feeling every time you post and share. This links up nicely with the Company who fully participate and engage with the community, and provide guides and tutorials that are so-well curated. If you know nothing at all about BCI, even if you’ve forgotten while I’ve explained them to you up above, this and much more will be completely flushed out with video guides, photo instructions, and plenty of well-documented text.

Feel free to check them out and stop by their Kickstarter campaign. You’ll get to see someone control a helicopter with some of their brainwaves!

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About the Author
Teon Brooks

Teon Brooks

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Cognitive Neuroscientist. Language Researcher. Research Software Engineer. Open Source contributor.