The Super-Future of Brainwear Has Arrived
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
You can finally turn your thoughts into actions.
By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu
OZY and Giant Spoon are excited to partner on special live coverage from CES 2017 — where the most forward-looking technology and media come together. Rather than cover just the latest gadgets, though, we’re taking you deeper with key takeaways, little-known rising stars, unconventional trends and, yes, the coolest sh*t from the convention. Tune in to our special Facebook Live tonight at 8pm EST / 5pm PST, for fresh perspectives on the future of artificial intelligence and new ways that let us interact with tech. On Friday, we’ll explore the future of data and robotics.
Beads of sweat cling to Bicheng Han’s forehead, giving a shine to his futuristic, shamanic headband. Surrounded by chaos on a crowded Consumer Electronics Show convention floor in Las Vegas, Han shuts his eyes and summons all of his powers of concentration. His brow furrows. With a steely gaze, he flicks on a lightbulb. Then he rouses a prosthetic hand. Finally, he appears to go deeper into thought as the metallic frame of a five-foot robot purrs to life. Jedi Knight this Han solo is not, though the neuroscientist-in-training is but a lightsaber away from becoming one.
Telekinesis, or that spoon-bending psychic ability to move things with the mind, may still seem largely the realm of science fiction. But the scruffy-bearded Han might just have the wits and whimsy to use the Force. He’s currently pursuing a Ph.D. in brain science at Harvard, where one of his classmates tells me he’s a “fast learner” and “thinks outside the box,” as well as the mastermind behind BrainCo. His two-year-old startup, which touts $5 million in funding, earned a rare nod of approval from the MassChallenge Boston Awards, which listed the company as one of 128 finalists, out of more than 1,700 applicants, for an accelerator program.
If Han’s device ends up taking off, the brain-hacking headband won’t just help flick on the kitchen lights or switch a TV channel. It could have major implications for neurofeedback training — the conscious manipulation of brain wave activity where a person’s “intellectual abilities and emotional resources can be considerably enhanced,” says Siegfried Othmer, the chief scientist at the EEG Institute. Individuals with disabilities, in particular, could benefit greatly here given that traditional prosthetics are connected to muscle signals.
This relatively new technique of neurofeedback training has long been under the purview of medical professionals who treat patients with anxiety, depression, sleep disorders and attention deficit disorders. But now Han is aiming to bring this method to the mainstream — by trying to make the elusive power of training and “amplifying your brain” as common as how people try to boost their heart rate or burn calories, he says. The headband supposedly works by translating the electrical activity in your brain — when you’re, say, thinking about turning off a light or the TV — into computer code (the details of which Han wouldn’t disclose) that then relays that signal to your Wi-Fi-enabled devices. Imagine if Einstein had gotten his hands on one of these babies.
Han’s brain-hacking headband is part of an emerging trend inside the wider world of wearable devices around the super-future of brainwear. Emotiv’s brain-reading headband lets users deftly maneuver a drone with just their thoughts. Meanwhile, other EEG headsets like Muse and Melomind claim to help calm a restless mind by scanning your brain waves for signs of stress. Although the companies did not respond to requests for comment, the brain-monitoring market is expected to expand to top $11 billion by 2020, up from just $7.5 billion in 2015, according to global research firm MarketsandMarkets.
Seeing how Han is decked out in powerful sensors today, it’s hard to picture him as a young boy growing up near the Russia-China border in Mudanjiang, where he embraced his inner brainiac early on. There were math teasers alongside toy robots, crossword puzzles next to computer games. As the only son of real estate agents, Han says he “had too much freedom” and was spoiled with trinkets and gizmos of all kinds. He’s still got the gadget geek mentality now, with three years in biomedical device development under his belt and a handful of patents in his name in China and Korea.
The brain is the most complex organ in our body and scientists are still trying to decode what makes that powerful machine in our heads tick.
Christian Jarrett, a psychologist and author of Great Myths of the Brain
Of course, I ask Han to let me take his headband for a test-drive. He gingerly places it on me, but no dice — not even a flicker from the lightbulb I’m struggling to turn on with my mind. Mastering this glorified party trick doesn’t come easy, though it might not be entirely my fault. After all, the brain is the most complex organ in our body and scientists are still trying to decode what makes that powerful machine in our heads tick, says Christian Jarrett, a psychologist and author of Great Myths of the Brain. Jarrett is skeptical of anything companies try to sell as a “shortcut to enlightenment,” and he’s got good reason to be cautious within this corner of the industry where hype and failure are no strangers. Last year, for instance, San Francisco-based Luminosity was fined $2 million for false advertising and sugarcoating the effectiveness of their brain-training program. (The company didn’t respond to requests for comment.)
For Han, BrainCo’s biggest hurdle may be helping people sort brain waves from the electrical “noise” of everyday movements. Even a slight facial muscle movement can produce a signal that’s tricky to tease out from the all-important brain waves. And the output of brain signals is puny, admits Han. But here in Vegas, the bespectacled Han appears to have achieved a sort of alpha wave nirvana — a Zen-like state that is mind-blowing, if not slightly unnerving. His focus never seems to falter even with all of the show’s noise. His gaze is unrelenting.