A Hackathon Dedicated to Interfacing the Brain
The first Hack-A-Brain was a terrific success. Over the course of the day a diverse group of more than 60 people participated. They learned, coded, and built their way to becoming capable brain hackers!
The day kicked off with a brief lecture about the current state of the brain-computer interfacing (BCI) industry given by Brain Interface Lab founder, Conor Russomanno. He emphasized the growing DIY/commercial realm of the field and its difference from the traditional medical study surrounding the topic. The current and future states of “BCI Practicality” – a term used to represent the real-world feasibility of brain interfaces – were also discussed. The video of the lecture is shown below.
The lecture was followed by a brief overview of the tutorial, How To Hack Toy EEGs, done by a group of students from NYU’s ITP department known as the Frontier Nerds. The tutorial served as the technological basis for the hackathon that took place later in the day.
The Frontier Nerds tutorial was followed by a series of demonstrations of BCI-related projects from BIL members Sarah Wever, Kristen Kersh, and Conor Russomanno. The demonstrations included a DIY wearable sleep sensor for tracking and visualizing various phases of sleep, an experiment and artistic representation of people’s brain activities as they worked in different environments, a mobile application for tracking and comparing moods and environmental stimuli, and a simple neurofeedback game for visualizing attention level through an procedurally generated electricity animation. Following the demonstrations, participants were given time to grab lunch, mingle, and form teams for the ensuing hackathon.
The hacking portion of the event began with an epic, hour-long frenzy of stripping apart and soldering Mattel Mindflex toys. The devices contain Neurosky EEG TGAM chips inside of them and can be purchased for ~$20 on Amazon. Once each team had a functional EEG-to-computer system up and running, they set off to prototype and build a project with the primary objective being to “design, build, and share a project prototype that creatively explores an application of BCI while pushing forward the open-source nature of the field.”
The teams grinded away for countless hours, with only one brief interlude for pizza! What’s a hackathon without pizza?? The most heavily emphasized criterion of the competition was documentation. Thus, teams were required to elect a member whose main responsibility was to record their team’s process on this blog. If you’re intrigued to know more about the individual projects, explore the various posts made on the day of the event (February 16th, 2013).
At the end of the hackathon, teams reconvened to share the projects they had created with all of the other teams. The room was full of smiles and unabated curiosity as all of the participants anxiously anticipated discovering what had been built over the course of the event. The positive energy and sentiment of accomplishment was rampant as people demoed their work and talked about hopeful future iterations.
After the presenations, the judges convened to determine the winners of the Hack-A-Brain. After having to make some very tough decisions, the judges gave the 1st place prize, which included a free Mindflex for each team member, to Team Brain Car for building a 2-player racing game where the competitors controlled the speeds of remote-controlled cars with their levels of attention. Their project was documented well and has source code for others to replicate. Other notable projects included a wearable antenna made by the 2nd place-winning father-son team. The Best Integration of Data award went to Team B, a team of experienced programmers, who built the foundation for a binary classifier system that was able to detect whether the wearer was thinking positive or negative thoughts. They might have been able to lock down 1st Place had they had more time to test and validate their system. The first honorable mention award went to Team Hexabrain Bug, which involved controlling the movement of a remote-controlled bug with the user’s attention. This project was also documented very well.
At the end of the day, Hack-A-Brain was a truly inspiring event. The participants consisted of hackers from all ages and backgrounds. There were high school students working along-side retired software engineers, a father/son team, designers, programmers, and neuroscientists. The event brought together experts from prestigious organizations around NYC such as Columbia Neuroscience MD/PhD, Parsons MFA Design & Technology, NYUs ITP program, The Polytechnic Institute of NYU, Parsons BFA Design & Technology, Columbia University Computer Science, various other programs from within The New School, Hack Manhattan, and more. By the end of the competition every participant demonstrated proficiency with basic principals of physical computing using Arduino, simple coding techniques in processing, a conceptual understanding of EEG and digital brain activity, as well as a newfound passion and understanding for interfacing the brain.
A special thank you goes out to everyone that helped put this event together. It could not have happened if it wasn’t for the immense support we received from The New School, The Office of Student Development and Activities within the New School, Jennifer Kay and Dorkshop, Rachel Law and Art Tech Events, Sean Kean and Ellen Pearlman from The Volumetric Society of NYC, David Carroll and Parsons MFA Design & Technology, and everyone that helped spread the word. Thank you and we look forward to working together in the future. Thanks to the sponsorship we received through Art Tech Events and The New School Office of Student Development and Activities, we were able to purchase enough low-cost EEG equipment to run the event.