Frequently Asked Questions
Q: What is a BCI?

A: BCI stands for "Brain-Computer Interface" and refers to a system which uses signals from the brain to provide feedback or control a computer or device in a way which reflects the user's intent.


Q: Does this stuff really work?

A: Yes.


Q: Really?

A: Yes!


Q: How does it work?

A: The human brain is made up of approximately 100 billion tiny neurons, all connected together and organized into groups, constantly sending and receiving signals to and from one another.

Imagine a spider web made of guitar strings. If you were to pluck a single string, it would start to hum and vibrate and soon the strings it touches would start to hum and vibrate too, like ripples in a pound when a stone is dropped in the water.

The actual signals these neurons transmit are simply small electrical currents, generated by the mixture of chemicals being released for each different type of message being passed along. Pleasure corresponds to one set of chemicals, pain another, and so on. When enough neurons in the same location of the brain are all firing at the same time, it can be detected on the surface of the skin on your head and we can measure this using "Electroencephalography," otherwise known as EEG.

An EEG device, simply put, is a voltmeter. Just like you can measure a battery with a voltmeter, you can also measure the electrical activity happening inside the brain. There are some important differences however.

A single "AA" battery as used in many toys and TV remote controls carries a 1.5 volt charge. As the battery "runs out" the voltage drops until it is no longer strong enough to power the device, and a voltmeter will tell what its current charge might be. The electrical charges generated by the firing of neurons much lower - so small in fact we measure them in millionths of a volt (┬ÁV). For this reason EEG devices need to be very precise and if someone has a lot of hair for instance it can be hard to get an accurate reading.

Of course there is already something besides hair in the way of measuring these signals - the skull!

Imagine someone standing behind a wall, yelling loudly. If you stood in the middle of the wall, you might be able to figure out if the person on the other side was to the right or left of you, and maybe work out roughly where they were, but it would be difficult to say for sure.

Lets make it a little harder, and replace the person shouting with a radio, which only plays music on certain stations (frequencies). If you had a way of tuning that radio from your side of the wall, you'd first have to find a station that comes in loud and clear before you could starting trying to locate it.

Now lets make it harder still, and imagine there are dozens of radios behind the wall, some further back than others, all drowning each other out. How are you ever going to find the one you are looking for, or figure out something like which song it is playing?

This isn't precisely how the brain works, but hopefully gives a good rough idea. Scientists have managed to use EEG and similar equipment to map out what is happening in different regions of the brain, and continue developing more and more accurate models of which radio can be found where, and what kinds of music play on all of the different stations.

For example, a narrow band runs from ear to ear, right across the top of the head, called the motor cortex. This is where all of the movements of your body is controlled. Right at the middle is the part of your brain which controls your feet, and it "lights up" whenever you move them. Just to the left of that spot is the part that controls your right hand, and just to the right is the part that controls your left. That's one of the interesting thing scientists have learned - that the brain is "cross-wired" in the sense that some parts of your body are controlled by the opposite side of your brain. Similarly the part that handles all of the vision processing from your eyes (the visual cortex) being located all the way at the back.

We use this knowledge to build BCIs which control a computer or robot by using an EEG device to take measurements of electrical signals at different positions around the head.


Q: "Braaaaaains..."

A: Well put. While we too are concerned about the coming zombie apocalypse consuming key components of any good brain-computer interface, there are already many experts training in the field to handle just such an eventuality.

In the meantime, we recommend everyone to stick together and always aim for the head.


Q: I need your help. While I was asleep, someone broke into my house and implanted a device inside my brain which is reading my mind and tracking me everywhere I go. Please save me!

A: No problem, we run into this situation all the time. When you go to sleep tonight our crack team of specialists will come by and remove the device. Don't worry, we already who you are and where you live.


Q: I just read the last two questions, and now I'm confused. Are you joking? Are you sure this stuff really works?

A: We like to keep a healthy sense of humour but rest assured this technology is real and working right now. If it all sounds a bit far-fetched and futuristic, just remember, the year is 2010. We already live in the future. If you would like further information, we recommend these great online resources:

The Brain:
Neuroscience for Kids

BCIs:
Brain Communication Foundation
The Wadsworth Center
Graz University of Technology - Laboratory of Brain-Computer Interfaces
OpenViBE Software for Brain Computer Interfaces and Real Time Neurosciences