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Meet the woman making brainwave control look more like meditation and less like the Matrix

Ariel Garten-LeWeb12-credit Kmeron

What does it take to lead one of the most promising companies in the budding field of brainwave-controlled computing? It’s a bit hard to say, because Ariel Garten wrote her own road map to get there. With a background spanning fashion design, neuroscience, and psychotherapy, she’s about as interdisciplinary as they come. And as a female innovator in tech, she has long been in the spotlight for the unique blend of talents she brings to the table.

Now, as CEO of InteraXon, Garten – along with co-founders Trevor Colemen and Chris Aimone – has fused interests in both art and science to develop Muse. This sleek, streamlined headband aims to transmit the brain’s electrical signals directly to tablets, computers, and appliances. Still find it mindblowing to reach out and touch your laptop screen? Just imagine controlling your apps with nothing but your mind itself.

Back at CES 2013, we covered Muse’s mind-exercise demos, and were so curious that we headed straight to the source to learn more about what makes this futuristic tech thrilling.

Right brain, meet left brain

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For Garten, creative expression and scientific inquiry have never been the opposites that some make them out to be. “My mother is an artist, so things were always created in front of me,” Garten said. Drawing inspiration from the enormous oil paintings created by her mother, Vivian Reiss, Garten started a clothing line in high school, and went on to eventually open Toronto Fashion Week with her line.

At the same time, as a biochemistry student in college, Garten worked in scientific labs researching mind-technology interaction. Under Dr. Steve Mann, a pioneer in cybernetics and wearable computers, she experimented with using brain activity to trigger musical playback. Already, she says, she was hooked on “the idea of brainwaves, [and] how they carried both scientific and emotional information.”

Tapping into the brain’s self-awareness

“It’s really darn cool to be able to see inside your mind,” Garten said. After years of demonstrating brainwave-controlled devices with Dr. Mann, Garten decided she wanted to bring that pure coolness to a wider audience. She co-founded InteraXon with Coleman and Aimone, and the trio immediately started developing commercial prototypes, which eventually lead to the creation of Muse.

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So what does a mind-controlled headband do, exactly? “It helps you alleviate negative things, like relieve stress and reduce anxiety,” says Garten. “It’s also about human performance and human potential. It improves your capabilities. It helps you express yourself in new, creative ways.”

One early prototype even involved a so-called levitating chair. After hooking up an egg-shaped chair to a motor-controlled winch, developers programmed the winch to respond only to calm, meditative brainwave patterns from a mind-controlled headband. Then, as the subject put on the headband, sat in the chair, and managed to slip into a state of relaxation, the chair would slowly rise toward the ceiling, accompanied by a satisfying sound effect.

The science at play

Brain-sensing technology may seem straight out of Minority Report, but there’s some pretty solid science to back it up. According to Garten, “there’s a whole body of research on mindfulness, meditation, and EGG, and on enhancing cognitive abilities with EEG.” Basically, EEG sensors detect electrical signals created by neurons firing in the brain, and interpret those signals as different kinds of brainwaves, depending on their frequency.

In other words, this technology can’t “read your mind” – at least, not in the sense of knowing what you ate for breakfast. What it can do is enhance mindfulness in much the same way as traditional meditation, making users more aware of their state of mind and how to replicate it in the future. As Garten puts it, it encourages a “meditative quality that leads you to be very present so that you can feel your emotions fully, but effectively.”

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One outside study that Garten particularly admired looked at the minds of surgeons who were performing a mock surgery. “They were able to track brainwave patterns associated with effective surgery,” Garten said. In a similar way, she hopes her technology will use principles of mindfulness to help users better understand their emotions and increase their cognitive ability. “It’s really an agent of change to help you understand what’s going on in your mind.”

Indeed, brainwave-sensing technology shows remarkable promise for enabling those with ADHD gain control over their ability to focus. It may also help sports professionals concentrate, and help retired individuals maintain cognition. Of course, much like a good yoga session, it has the potential to help everyone from business professionals to new mothers regain a sense of balance.

Enter Muse: the IndieGoGo Campaign

“People are always very enthused about what we do,” Garten said. Yet, she was still blown away by the response to the Indigogo campaign to fund the Muse headband. The crowdsourcing campaign raised more than $287,000, far surpassing the original $150,000 goal. “What amazed me were the hundreds and hundreds of comments,” Garten said. “This was one of the first times we were able to really engage with our community of potential users.”

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The wildly successful campaign transformed InteraXon’s ambitious brain-sensing technology from potential vaporware into an imminent reality. Now slated for release late this year, the sleek, pre-orderable Muse comes in black or white, and slips over the temples to hook behind the ears, resembling a modern-age tiara. In fact, The Huffington Post lauded the design as a “fashion-forward device, which even Anna Wintour would conceivably wear.” Ticketed at $199 before tax and shipping, it includes a suite of brain-training apps, including one game that encourages users to “pull” the moon over the sun by alternately relaxing and focusing their thoughts.

A sparkling sci-fi future?

The possible uses of Muse in the future are many. “Oh my god,” Garten said. “There’s so much I want to see!” Whether it comes to playing with remote-controlled cars, creating music setlists, adding photo filters, or painting digital artwork, Garten sees few avenues of computing that couldn’t potentially benefit from brainwave-sensitive inputs. She showcased one recently-developed application at LeWeb 2012 called EmoType, a text editor that changes its font style based on the user’s current state of mind. In a few years, worries over whether someone misinterpreted the tone of your email could be gone for good.

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Of course, such a radically futuristic technology is bound to raise certain doubts about safety and privacy. But Garten is quick to emphasize InteraXon’s security standards, as well as its ongoing efforts to create an international brainwave ethics body. Besides, she says, “the information we’re getting is not that different from the signal you might get from someone’s heartbeat. That signal gives all kinds of useful information, but it doesn’t tell someone your PIN number.”

In Garten’s vision, brainwave-sensing technology like Muse will simply “give people access to more expanded information,” which may help them become “in some ways, more human.”

Advice to future innovators

To programmers, designers, and engineers hoping to get involved in the world of neuroscience tech – especially women – Garten has a single word of advice: “Start!”

While she acknowledges that her field is male-heavy and she occasionally gets addressed as “Mr. Garten,” Garten says that she feels completely comfortable in her chosen career, and believes the time is ripe for more female innovators. “There are no longer any of the perceived barriers that there were before,” she says. “People are particularly excited to see women succeed in this field right now.”

After all, if mind-controlled interfaces take off the way IBM has predicted, it will be hard to find a more exciting place to be. “There’s an entire world to dive into here,” says Garten. “This is just the tip of the iceberg.”

Photo via @Kmeron for LeWeb12

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