Scattered projects and ideas

Mind Controlled Robotic Arm at The Exploratorium

At the beginning of last year (2015), there was a grand neuroscience exhibition at the Exploratorium. People could see how their brainwaves and heart rate change as they meditate, experience a virtual reality that adapts to their brain, learn about the latest fMRI research, control a robot arm with their mind, amongst other things.

I was part of the team responsible for the mind-controlled robotic arm. It was a great experience. The Make magazine even wrote about us!

I’ll present this here, in this way overdue post. Basically, it went like this…

First, we setup the headset. The electrodes had to be pointing down, and all touching the scalp. We looked at our own display of signal quality to check whether they were placed properly.

We would then explain the training protocol. Basically the visitors needed to do some motor imagery. They would see a little man waving his arm (for left or right) or staying still (for baseline). They would then have to imagine something related to their left arm, right arm, or neither, according to the position of the man.

I would tell them it’s important to have “vivid and consistent images”. Things like imagining sensations on hand, imagining arm wrestling, or imagining raising hand in the air all worked for different people.

Here they actually did the training described above.

The most exciting part! They finally get to control the robot arm. It’s pretty exciting when the robot arm moves according to your thoughts!

Some visitors could do it, others not so much. I noticed that the younger visitors had an easier time than the older ones.

My friend Tom├ís claims it’s due to “BCI illiteracy”, that some people have trouble learning this abstract skill, although I feel like we could all learn this skill, albeit at different paces. Our little booth had only so much time to train people, our headset perhaps not suited for everyone (especially with lots of frizzy hair), and the people themselves not always in the best state of mind to do this training.

If you’re interested in how we made this work, check out this post.