brain-tech
Healthcare

Emotiv's Kim Du on the Big Data of healthy brains

“Right now lots of clinics have large databases of essentially broken, damaged brains,” says Kim Du, VP of Corporate Development at Emotiv over the phone from San Francisco. “[This is] because most people don’t get the opportunity to have a brain scan unless they’ve experienced some trauma.”

“What we’re looking to do it compile a database of healthy brains,” she continues. This data should help us understand how a “healthy brain develops over a lifetime” and should provide insights to “improve our quality of life” and “optimise” the use of our brains.

The world of Big Data is expanding. We now have analytics on almost everything. The Internet of Things is beginning to take care of objects, and companies like IBM are starting to deliver insights into uncharted regions like rural Africa. This means the last place to remain untracked might be our own brains. A fact that could become increasingly important as we keep on living longer and getting more susceptible to degenerative mental conditions like dementia.

Emotiv is an interesting company for a number of reasons. Firstly, it has been in this marketplace for a long time, since Tan Le founded it a decade ago. Secondly, its main initial product was the EPOC headset which is a serious piece of kit aimed at proper research. Thirdly, it has launched the Insight which is marketed at a more consumer audience and gained considerable attention at the Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas this year. However, its general release date keeps getting pushed back.

Du stresses that with the launch of the Insight, the company plans to maintain both the “consumer” and the “research” arm of the business. She believes what differentiates Emotiv from the competition is that even its consumer model has “more sensors” than other products and it is making a pretty serious play for accuracy rather than merely building upscale toys.

“All our technology has been validated against traditional EEG systems to validate the signals,” Du adds “we’re really proud of the data quality the technology is able to bring to users”.

Safe to say this technology has not reached a true medical grade yet. But what fascinates me about it is the sheer potential in the field. The industry has taken a long time to reach this point and is still going through an intense period of experimentation but Du believes “it is gaining momentum”. Although there is currently “not enough awareness” and to many ordinary consumers it still “feels a bit science fiction”.

“I think a lot of different companies are starting to become aware about how it can integrate,” says Du. “It will be interesting to see where that goes”.

At present this technology is being used in four many ways. The first is the more gimmicky Brain Computer Interfaces (BCI) which are often employed in video games or for controlling objects with your mind. The second is testing to see “how people respond to different stimulus”. In practice that could mean monitoring brain responses to watching a video, or walking through a park.

The third is medical research where the benefit comes from being able to use it in people’s home environments. “This is by no means a replacement for traditional brain scans,” advises Du “but can provide an extra layer of data in the natural environment where they’re not having their skin abased or their hair shaved”.

The fourth main use case is education where brain reading can be used to “optimise your performance in terms of how you focus, how you learn,” and also working with kids who have learning difficulties.

Within these areas Emotiv has partnered with a range of different organisations from smart lighting solutions with Accenture and Philips through to working on monitoring a simulated Mars environment with NASA. Du has been amazed by the ideas coming forward. Yet all this just scratches the surface of its enormous future potential.

At the moment Du feels the “form factor” is still a bit of a drawback but as wearables become more common this will decrease. She uses the analogy of wearing headphones, which must have been a little strange for people at first, but now nobody considers.

At the heart of all this though, is a very serious point: “We’re growing older [and] living longer. It is not just about physical health anymore,” reminds Du. And so, maybe Big Data for our brains could provide the crucial understanding we need to help stem the rise of dementia-like conditions?

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