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Consumer-based BCI: A night discussing Neurable and Enten with Dr. Ramses Alcaide

In NeuroCollege’s fourth installment of our speaker series, we welcomed Ramses Alcaide, the co-founder, and CEO of Neurable. Ramses gave insight into the origin of Neurable, and how the company is aiming to address the shortcomings facing current consumer neurotechnology with their new product Enten. We were lucky enough to receive a live demonstration of Enten, consumer-based EEG headphones, which showcased the device’s attention ability to monitor focus levels. After the demonstration, Ramses pivoted toward the future of Neurable and consumer BCIs. This was followed by a Q+A allowing members of the audience to explore some technical details regarding Enten, and receive advice concerning the domain of BCI’s. This piece aims to summarize what we learned from the event.

What is Neurable?

Neurable is an emerging neurotech startup applying advanced signal processing software to the development of neurotechnology for everyday applications. They hope to assist with each of our limitations by empowering users with heightened focus levels through positive feedback. Grounded in research by CEO Dr. Ramses Alcaide at the University of Michigan, Neurable is a community of researchers who are passionate about the untapped potential of the brain.

Ramses Alcaide

During his talk, Alcaide gave insight into his motivation to provide equity for those with disabilities. This motivation originated from his experience observing the challenges that living with a prosthetic device posed for his uncle, as he recovered from an accident that severed both of his legs. His uncle was an engineer and designed prosthetics for himself allowing him to partially free himself of the limits placed on his mobility after the accident. Seeing the limits still surrounding his uncles’ experience inspired Ramses to study signal processing and control systems for prosthetic devices in undergrad.

Neurable origin and projects leading up to Enten

Neurable was founded based on Ramses’ research at the University of Michigan’s neuroscience graduate program with Dr. Jane Huggins at the Direct Brain Interface Laboratory.

Early signal processing research led to precise and adaptable control of basic lego robotics, wheelchairs, and a Nissan Versa. In 2017 Neurable launched the Developer Kit 1 (DK1) which demonstrated the applications of brain-computer interfaces in the realm of virtual reality with the HTC Vive headset. A NYT article that details a user’s experience with this cohesion of BCI and VR is found here.

Company-wide goals include equity concerning communication and self-expression, as well as empowerment of each individual to overcome their limitations and reach their true potential. These goals reflect the impact that Ramses believes functional consumer BCI’s will impart on the world. He sees the immense value of these devices generating their ubiquity in the future. Ramses framed the market of brain-computer interfaces as analogous to phones before the iPhone. Like the cell phone, BCI’s have the potential to offer users great worth, but they currently are not user friendly enough to see massive growth. Neurable wants to facilitate the shift of bulky, strenuously calibrated, and expensive BCI to portable, adaptable, and affordable devices that change the way we interact with the world.

Next Ramses expounded upon Neurable’s market research

Current BCI challenges and considerations in development include

  • Function: Does the device work as advertised? Is there use to the product
  • Cost: Is it affordable
  • Societal fit: Does the device look weird
  • Comfort: Is usable for an extended period/everyday
  • User Experience: How complicated is the setup and calibration process?

Their market research led to other lessons regarding value-adding features. Neurable found three large groups of people that are natural fits for BCI :

People who like to quantify their activities. Ramses mentioned fitbits and step counts serving the user a metric in the area of their physical health. Consumer BCI can offer these same people a metric concerning their mental health.

Many people have difficulty focusing in modern society. Some feel as if technology and the rise of social media have constructed an attention economy seeking to capitalize on our inability to focus. Ramses wants to offer these people the tools to overcome these distractions and enjoy productive lives.

A benefit of increased productivity is more time free of work. A large finding in their market research is that people are working more than ever before. Time off that allows people to explore their passions outside of work improves the relationship we develop with our work itself and increases mental health. Neurable aims to develop devices that allow users to maximize the productivity of the times they put in work and enjoy their time off.

These three emphases led to the overall question driving product development

How can we quantify focus to help people develop habits that are conducive for productivity granting people more time to develop passions outside of work?

Enter Enten

Ramses next spoke about Neurable’s most recently announced product, Enten, a device that he described as the “culmination of a lot of years worth of work”. These EEG-based headphones represent Neurable’s first attempt at implementing their advanced signal processing solutions to a consumer-level product that strives to quantify focus in a way that can meet the needs identified by their market research. Below is a link to Neurable’s advertisement that announced Enten.

Enten Ad

Goals and functionality of Enten

Enten aims to free users from the limitations placed on people in the workplace. Enten hopes to provide users with headphones that not only can block out the physical noise of the environment but allow users to receive helpful feedback regarding their focus for the day. This feedback comes in the form of a Fitbit-Esque daily report of their attention throughout the day while their headphones were in use. This report features an abstracted attention score graph that relies on the signals received by the device via EEG setup on the headphone pads. Enten will also work in conjunction with Spotify’s API to curate playlists and rank songs based on their effect on your attention score.

EEG setup

In their attempt to quantify focus, Neurable uses an EEG setup with electrodes lined along the padding around the ears of the headphone. These electrodes utilize conductive textiles woven into the fabric of these pads to provide a signal that is similar to medical-grade dry electrode EEG setups while being an inexpensive and comfortable solution.

Most advancements at Neurable have come in the form of signal processing methods with machine learning. Electrode setup on the Enten headset is of similar performance to medical-grade dry electrode setups

How Neurable quantifies focus with the EEG setup on Enten

Neurable’s lead scientist Dr. Ali Yousefi has demonstrated that an individual’s reaction time to oddball stimuli and attention levels are closely linked. From reliable EEG data, he developed a predictive model for these reaction times, and thus a model for attention levels present in the Enten focus quantification. Link to research here

Enten live demo

While Dr. Mavi, a research engineer at Neurable, performed a simple color matching test, she was distracted by several external factors. Once she began the task her attention score rapidly increased. Her baseline focus was soon established initiating the sequence of distractions used to test the functionality of the Enten attention tracking. These distractions led to evident drops in her real-time attention score. See the demo here(starts at the 14:40 mark).

Future of Neurable

Above is a diagram that illustrates the current and future states of consumer BCI. As shown during the Enten live demo, Neurable can reliably obtain attention models based on sensors present in a headphone integrated setup. While this feature was not present during the demo, Ramses claims that Enten is also currently capable of a binary click interaction. He has used this interaction in the past to toggle between slides in presentations to VCs. As shown in the figure, he envisions the expansion of BCI in respect to form factor, applications, and interaction precision and latency. This diagram attempts to chart not only Neurable’s BCI plans but to chart the future of the field as a whole.

Q+A

After the live demo and brief view of Neurable’s vision of the future of BCI, Ramses answered several questions posed by members of the audience. Many of these questions were centered on the technical details and potential uses of the Enten device.

Enten related questions

How can you pick up signals from near the ears or the sides of the head instead of a position nearer to the prefrontal cortex?

Leading hypotheses regarding signals received from around the ear stem from the innate conductivity of the brain. As your frontal lobe executes attentional regulation, signals are sent to other regions of the brain. These responses are picked up from the electrode setup and monitored by Neurable’s signal processing software. While data from a forehead sensor would be ideal, the user experience and societal fit properties of the device would lead to less adoption of the device.

Is Enten designed for people with ADHD?

Enten aims to help everyone, as we all experience distractions, although testing has involved a Neurodiverse collection of users.

How does the electrode setup account for the lack of spacing between the electrodes and the reference electrode?

The electrode setup around the ear utilizes signal redundancy to allow for user flexibility in regards to how they wear the device. For example, a user’s ideal method of wearing the headset may lead to an electrode losing contact with their scalp. The previously mentioned redundancy allows for this loss of contact to not significantly affect the performance of the device. Other electrodes will be there to pick up the signal when one channel receives poor readings.

What are the limitations of non-invasive BCI consumer technologies?

Neurable’s definition of a brain-computer interface sensor toolkit is not limited to just EEG. Any sensor to gauge user intent is fair game. Neurable will soon announce new tech that is doing some of the stuff on the next category on their brain-computer interface timeline. Currently undisclosed, Ramses claims the revolution of noninvasive neurotechnology is coming.

Can you speak a bit more about the fabric electrodes used by Enten?

Electrodes are the result of a partnership with a medical-grade EEG company, and most of Neurable’s innovation has come in the form of machine learning-based signal processing methods.

If you are trying to create a predictive model of focus from a reaction time test, the model will not be scalable to distractions that look like work. For example, a person who is checking their emails may be distracted, but the model thinks they are working because while they are distracted by emails, they technically are working on something. How is Neurable approaching these other types of distractions?

The technology does not work in every scenario. That progress to a more comprehensive attention measurement will take time. Neurable has tested the product on hundreds of users and is working towards generalization with every bit of user data. Also, remember the electrode setup operates to monitor the level at which the frontal lobe is relaying signals to other regions of the brain. The aim is not to know what the frontal lobe is telling these other regions, but to detect if it is happening. This allows for more generalizability as well.

Neurable API/access raw data from electrode setup on Enten?

While Neurable will allow access to this raw data, most developers will likely just use tools created by Neurable(attention levels, etc.)

Other questions

Does Neurable take interns? If so, how do I reach out?

“Join the discord! We would love to meet you and see how you could contribute to our team”.

As a company that is focused on equity, how are you as a company trying to reach people outside of the early-adopting high-income tech bubble that could benefit from this technology?

Neurable aims to make Enten’s price accessible and easy to use. They also view the product as a piece of technology analogous to the phone in respect to daily life value. These factors will hopefully contribute to the widespread access of the technology

What skills are valued in the Brain-Computer Interface industry?

People outside of tech are still required. Neurable still needs market researchers, lawyers, etc. However, most jobs are focused on the technology side. For these positions, Neurable primarily hires masters and PhDs in Computer Science, Neuroscience, Applied Math, Physics. Typically the harder the math the better. Do projects and research to show passion for the field.

How can tech companies form with BCI as the focus?

Two ways to approach entrepreneurship with tech companies:

1-deep tech solution: Very advanced tech approach that is built off of years of research that secures funding because of project potential that is shown off at different events, but releases later on.

2-small and simple but valuable tech solution: less depth of research, but the expedited deployment of application or service that finds a niche in the market.

Neurable was more of the first method early on with the founding of the company coming as a result of Ramses grad research and demonstrations at various events that led to early funding. Now Neurable is utilizing the second method to find ways to create consistent value with the technology developed from the first approach.

What excites you about the field of Brain-Computer Interfaces?

I am excited because this is just the tip of the iceberg. I have heard this for years and you have probably too, but companies are doing some really exciting things with products that work. For the last 10–20 years consumer brain-computer interfaces have just not worked. This is the first big push. VR had to die 10 times for anything to stick and we are in the same situation with brain-computer interfaces. With the development of brain-computer interfaces like Enten that utilize years of research into usable form factors, I believe this technology will soon find its place.

Conclusion

Neurable’s launch of Enten marks a great leap of advanced technology into the consumer sphere. The live demonstration displayed proof of its focus quantifying functionality and was a testament to their tech team’s enthusiasm and dedication. It is truly inspiring to see Neurable’s research culminate in an accessible form factor that has the potential to grow in applications beyond attention quantification thanks to their advanced signal processing methods and standard performance EEG setup. NeuroCollege offers our sincerest gratitude for the entire Neurable team staying late on a Friday to exhibit technology that they are passionate about and offering us a glimpse into the future of consumer BCI.

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