New earbuds can translate brain signals into smartphone commands

Brain-Computer Interface or BCI has been utilized to harness the valuable data that comes from communication between brain activity and computers. This has led to advancements in the fields of diagnostics and prosthetic technology. UC Berkeley Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Rikky Muller, has taken the very concept of BCI and implemented it in two common items found in pockets and palms worldwide: smartphones and earbuds.

Dr. Miller sought to reformulate the physical comfort of  earbuds to enable them to detect and relay brain activity. The earbuds detect brain signals which are then transmitted to smartphones via Bluetooth. Then, smartphone software enables the brain wave patterns to turn into commands. For example, earbuds may be able to detect user eye blinks. A user could then intentionally use the motion of a blink to unlock their smartphone, instead of utilizing voice command. The translation of neural signals in the ears to commands on a smartphone is called Ear EEG (electroencephalography).

Dr. Muller states that she and her team sought to “make Ear EEG a practical and comfortable user-generic interface that can be integrated with consumer earbuds.” By integrating such a common product as earbuds, Dr. Muller was able to capture data from a wide array of users. Her team utilized ear canal measurements from the audiology company used to create hearing aids. Due to the minuscule size of brain signals, they needed to craft an earbud in which the electrodes made very close contact with the ear canal.

Dr. Muller and her team are also creating a training sequence to identify a person’s individual brain wave patterns to further customize the technology. Since neural signals are unique to the individual, this training sequence would be a similar process to setting up a face i.d. on a new smartphone.

Ear EEG is seen as a platform technology that has the capability to support consumer and health monitoring apps. Dr. Muller states that  “once you put a new platform in the hands of app developers, they are going to come up with extremely useful things to do with it.” Since headphones are an established industry, marketing this technology is a matter of integrating the EEG system with the headphone industry itself.  

Dr. Muller acknowledges that there are still major strides to be made in merging the two, but when they are, the advancements could be revolutionary.

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