Brain-Powered Boat Race: Q&A with PolyCortex

NeuroTechX spoke with PolyCortex about their concentration experiment which allowed participants to race boats with their mind!

For the first interview of our student club initiative, NeuroTechX had the opportunity to speak with Ian Gagnon and Pierre Clapperton Richard from PolyCortex, the NeuroTech student club of Polytechnique Montreal, Canada. PolyCortex participated in the Festival Eurêka, a Montreal based science festival that happened in June 2017 where they presented a fun experiment. Using the concentration of participants alone they were able to race two boats through a pool. Pierre and Ian kindly accepted to answer our questions.

NTX: Could you describe what you’ve done and the context?

Pierre: We participated to the Festival Eurêka, which gathered about 100.000 visitors this year. Basically, the festival proposed short scientific activities for children, that were organized by scientists. The idea was to promote science to kids by using fun experiments made by real scientists.
Ian: At the festival, our activity was a boat race controlled by the concentration. Each participant had a Muse headset on his head and, depending on his concentration level, we sent a variable voltage to a fan mounted on a boat. Ultimately, the more you concentrate, the faster the boat goes.

NTX: What kind of headset did you use?

Pierre: We used 4 Muse headsets from InteraXon. That was necessary because we had two boats competing all the time and we continuously had to use them. So at all time, we had to charge two headsets and switch quickly when there was no more battery in the ones that were used. By the way, we had always a minimum of three students running the game, to help put the headsets on the kids, to explain how it worked and make sure people were enjoying our activity.
Ian: Yes, that was crazy. We had people all the time, but the most fascinating was to see the kids coming back with friends after trying the boat race for the first time.

NTX: What were the other technologies that you used?

Pierre: We used a data processing pipeline made in Python (https://github.com/PolyCortex/pyMuse) with an small interface to control the game. The concentration data was sent to the boats via an Arduino and a small electronic circuit.
Ian: We also created the boats ourselves using 3D printing and a CNC. The boats were following a fishing line to make sure they stayed on track while the speed was controlled by the participants concentration. Most of this was done at PolyFab at Polytechnique (http://polyfab.polymtl.ca/), which is a very useful place to do fast prototyping.

NTX: What were the main challenges of your project?

Ian: Actually, we had many challenges to face. The first I think about was the water pool sealing. We needed something cheap and fast, that needed to last for three days with kids jumping around. Not easy! We also had some issues with the boat’s flotation and we had to redesign the boats just before the festival.
Pierre: Concerning the neurotechnologies, we sometimes had no concentration signal from the participants, and we had to ask ourselves if it was the participants fault or the technology fault. But overall, it worked well on the majority and even on kids. We even tried on a newborn baby with a food stimulus and he actually won the race against his father.

NTX: Are you going to continue the project, or to improve it?

Pierre: Yes of course, we would like to reuse it as an example of the technology. And we will continue to develop our own neurotech headsets based on this example.
Ian: Personally, what I would like is to make something more precise, more reliable, so that we are able to convince everyone that this technology (aka neurotechnologies) really works. We saw some persons, parents mainly, be skeptical when looking at the boats racing with their kids concentration.

NTX: Is this a project you would recommend for people that would like to start in neurotech?

Ian: Yes, it’s a nice project to start with. Capturing the concentration is fairly easy and works almost all the time. It does not require a huge amount of knowledge to make it work, so it is definitely a nice project for people that start in the field.
Pierre: I completely agree. And I would say that there is plenty of resources online, and lots of examples of code to start a project with headsets like the Muse. We have a GitHub repository containing the code that we used and there is a large community that supports students and amateurs that start experimenting in neurotech.
PolyCortex website: http://polycortex.polymtl.ca/

PolyCortex is a student club from Polytechnique Montreal and is part of the NeuroTechX student clubs initiative. You can learn more by visiting their website: http://polycortex.polymtl.ca/

Interview conducted by Benjamin De Leener