Start-Ups

How the "Brainwriter" is overshadowing Google Glass and Oculus Rift at London event

Not Impossible Labs just revealed the Brainwriter, designed to read and write brain waves for fully paralyzed people so they can draw and communicate, and it's now on display in London.

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The Brainwriter is a $400 open source wearable that reads and communicates using your brain waves.
Image: Not Impossible

At a new tech exhibition in London on Thursday, sitting between Google Glass and Oculus Rift, is a wearable you've probably never heard of. But it's the one that could have more of a revolutionary, world-changing impact than any of us realize.

It's called the Brainwriter — and it's an open source, do-it-yourself device that pairs with ocular recognition technology to enable the fully paralyzed to draw and communicate. It is on exhibit at the Barbican's "Digital Revolution" in London as the headliner in the "Wearable Technologies" section.

"Not Impossible is a very small rag-tag group of incredibly passionate people, so it's an honor being at this exhibition, being next to behemoth companies like these," said Mick Ebeling, the founder of Not Impossible, a startup based in Venice, California. The Not Impossible Foundation raises money to fund the crowdsourced projects of the lab, which is run by a small team under Ebeling's lead.

SEE: The startup that's doing the impossible

The Brainwriter — which is Not Impossible's latest project — works with eye-tracking devices by replacing the eye-blink-or-dwell selection of objects on a screen with EEG, or basic brainwave instructions. It's made from a headband, Olimex sensors, a shielding board, an OpenBCI board (which is an EEG device) and an eye-tracking device (i.e. SYMeyes, Tobii or EyeTribe).

It is the first device of its kind that marries ocular recognition technology and EEG tracking, so that people can move a mouse with their eyes and select or deselect options with their brain waves. It will be compatible with both active and passive electrodes and modern electronic platforms.

The EEG technology usually runs from $800 to $2,000 and can only interface with specific platforms. But the Brainwriter's open source design will cost about $400. As with everything Not Impossible does, the parts list and design are available on the site so that people can reiterate and improve upon them.

The idea for the Brainwriter stemmed from the Eyewriter, which Ebeling and his team released in 2008. It was a device made for Tempt One, a fully paralyzed artist who inspired Not Impossible in the first place. The project used a pair of cheap glasses and ocular recognition technology to track Tempt One's eye movements so he could draw with them.

It ended up becoming a huge success, laid the foundation for Not Impossible, and inspired people around the world to make the device even more efficient. One example, Ebeling said, was a person in South Korea who emailed him, detailing how great the Eyewriter was and complementing the company's work. But at the end, the writer said: "Oh by the way, we made a device that's better."

And that, for Ebeling, is the point of it all.

"That's perfect. We want that to be a device that improves," he said. "There's not a feeling of intellectual property, of preciousness. You want whatever you make to be made obsolete as soon as possible."

When Tempt One's ALS started progressing more rapidly, Ebeling and his team decided to find a way to allow him to communicate when the Eyewriter would no longer do so. A very small team of engineers and researchers built the Brainwriter and accompanying exhibition: Javed Ganjee, Elliot Kotek, Daniel Goodwin, and David Putrino, and Sam Bergen.

"They never gave up on it, were working tirelessly, other team members joined the fray, figuring out how can we do this," Ebeling said. "Luckily the team that was on this is brilliant and relentless in terms of pursuit. This one was a difficult one."

Tempt One and the Ebelings have become family through all of these innovations. Ebeling's wife helps with his basic care on a regular basis, with things like feeding and nursing needs.

"We really truly hope that we have created something that gets ahead of the disease," Ebeling said. "The beautiful thing about Tempt, is that even if this is not [helping] him, being the person and man he is, he's gonna be psyched to help other people."

Ebeling and the team also stays in touch with Daniel, a boy who inspired Not Impossible's other well-known project "Project Daniel," which used a low-cost 3D printer to make prosthetic arms for him and other people in his community.

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The Brainwriter is on display at the Barbican in London until September.
Image: Not Impossible

The Barbican exhibition runs from July 3 to September 14, and visitors can experiment with the Brainwriter with a game. Users can navigate through the game with their eyes, and as it reads their brain waves, tools can recharge and refuel. It's a basic iteration of the technology, Ebeling said, but the Brainwriter technology will be seen by hundreds of thousands of people — and that's what's exciting.

"[Finding out] how can open source, accessible technology provide an answer for a quantifiable, fundamental need. That's the goal," he said.

Not Impossible just launched a digital publication on their platform, called Not Impossible Now. Telling the stories of the things they create and allowing others who use the technology to do the same is Ebeling's vision, and eventually, he hopes people will match up via the site to help each other.

"We want people to come with ideas, come with needs, come with 'Daniels' to people that need help, and have the team be able to jump on board and create something around that," he said.

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Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.

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