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Our Jedi Future: How to Fly a Helicopter With Your Mind

On wearable brain scanners and telepathic toys.
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(Photo: Magoz)

(Photo: Magoz)

On a mid-December evening last year, I attended a party at the old San Francisco Mint to celebrate a new product called Insight, a “neuroheadset” that promises to read your thoughts. Attendees wandered the neon-lit corridors, refilling their cocktail glasses and checking out displays of older-model neuroheadsets, which some people placed on their heads and employed to levitate a toy helicopter and control virtual shapes with their mind. That sort of thing.

A week later, I paid a visit to Insight’s maker, a 36-year-old Australian named Tan Le. Her company, Emotiv, occupies a second-floor loft tucked away on a narrow street north of San Francisco’s Market Street. The office décor consisted of only a few white desks and computers; it was not at all the sci-fi hub I was expecting. Which is funny, because one of the first things Le told me was, “I’m a big Star Wars fan.” In fact, as a little girl in Australia, she was convinced she would one day move an object, Jedi-like, with her mind. Now, she’s mastered that trick.

Le doesn’t derive her Jedi-like powers from the Force, but when she wears Insight—a surprisingly elegant accessory that looks like a wildly outsized Bluetooth device, with five slender feelers each connecting to a spot on the user’s scalp—she does tap into a force: the electrical signals rapidly emanating from the billions of neurons in her brain. By measuring fluctuations in these impulses, the Insight headset learns to associate certain patterns of brain activity with certain commands. So once Insight records what Le’s brain looks like when it’s thinking, say, “fly,” the device knows when to do something like send a toy chopper skyward. It’s just the beginning of how Emotiv plans to use its products to expand the frontiers of neuroscience.

"We’re not trying to create a whimsical gadget or toy. Our goal is to accelerate brain research."

Insight relies on a technology that has been used on humans at least since 1924, when German neurologist Hans Berger made the first recordings of electrical brain activity. These electroencephalograms, or EEGs, involved affixing dozens of tangled electrodes to scalps with generous gobs of conductive jelly. Amazingly, that cumbersome and pricey process is still employed today—to image the brain as it performs specific cognitive tasks, or to see what sort of injury or disorder a patient might have. But there isn’t a lot of data on what brains look like as they go through a normal day.

Emotiv’s Insight aims to change that. The headset is wireless; it requires no gel; and it has only those five EEG sensors, not dozens. For these reasons, Insight may therefore take electroencephalography out of the lab and into the real world, where it would give both neuroscience researchers and ordinary consumers new ways of measuring and understanding the brain. When during the day are we most alert? What common activities trigger unlikely emotional responses? How does a straight-A student EEG differ from that of a low-performing student? The questions that Insight hopes to help us answer are almost limitless. Insight also foreshadows a future in which appliances will respond to our mental directions—something that’s especially anticipated by people with physical disabilities.

“We’re not trying to create a whimsical gadget or toy,” says Le. “Our goal is to accelerate brain research.”

Le grew up in Melbourne, Australia, where her family found refuge in 1981 after fleeing communist Vietnam. By age 20, she had been named Young Australian of the Year, a government honor that confers instant renown. After working for a while as a lawyer, she co-founded a telecommunications company (it involved software for high-speed text messaging) that she and her business partner sold in 2003, leaving her suddenly wealthy.

When Le embarked on her next venture, which was inspired by a meeting with scientist Allan Snyder, director of the Centre for the Mind at the University of Sydney, she didn’t have so much as a science degree to her name. But she likes to say you don’t fear what you don’t know. In 2003, with funding from the Australian government, angel investors, and VC firms, Le and three partners launched Emotiv Systems, a neuroengineering company devoted to channeling brainpower in new ways. They set up headquarters in San Francisco in 2005.

In 2011, Le started a new company, simply named Emotiv, which produces Insight. Emotiv’s 65 employees are not traditional brain experts. Instead, they are statisticians, quantum physicists, and population geneticists. She calls them “the misfits.”

Le’s previous company debuted its first headset in 2009. It was called EPOC, and it looked like an octopus with 14 spindly black legs. The initial publicity for the device was centered on gamers, but the primary buyers turned out to be researchers in psychology and neuroscience. According to Le, more than 50,000 EPOC units were sold in over 100 countries, and customers have included Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, Johns Hopkins, and the University of California. With EPOC, researchers can watch how the brain functions, and gather data on any number of mental afflictions—epilepsy, traumatic brain injury, depression, stress—all in real time, without the prohibitive costs of traditional EEG technology. (One recent study, published in PeerJ, an open-access journal, even found that EPOC data “compares well with the research EEG system” for certain stimuli.)

Insight is a lot smaller than EPOC, and this makes its readings a little cruder. But the device is also much less obtrusive. Emotiv created Insight partly to capitalize on the revolution in “wearables,” tech devices that track their wearers’ daily activities. “I’m not even embarrassed to wear it,” she claims, even if it does make her look a bit like a space creature. Le hopes people who wear Insight regularly will allow their EEG data to be uploaded to a “normative database,” which researchers could then use to create a composite neurological picture of the average human brain.

The plan is for Insight to hit the mass market in 2015, with a price tag of $299. So far, the device is being billed mainly as a tool to help people understand their own brains, but third-party software will also allow them to use Insight to play games and control other devices with their minds. At the party at the Mint, I saw a woman try on an EPOC and almost immediately make one of the toy helicopters fly. Triumphantly, she announced, “I am Luke Skywalker!” If Le’s visions for Insight comes true, many more Lukes are on the way.

This post originally appeared in the March/April 2014 issue of Pacific Standard as “Our Jedi Future.” For more, subscribe to our print magazine.