Design

Tech firm 3D prints electrifying headset that ‘boosts’ brain performance

An Australian tech start-up is developing a device it claims will boost brain performance by delivering electric shocks to those who wear it. The 3D printed prototype headset consists of electrodes that monitor brainwaves, and could potentially stimulate concentration.

HUMM Tech, the company behind the computer interface, is made up of innovators from diverse backgrounds, including a medical doctor, a NASA intern, and a transcranial direct stimulation researcher (tDCS).

Its 3D headset is comprised of technology similar to that trialled on pilots who need to remain alert while working. The tech firm, which is based in Perth, Australia, sees eSports gamers as its initial market.

Shocking stimulation 

The headset uses Electroencephalography (EEG) technology to determine the brain’s state in real-time and gauge metrics such as tiredness and concentration. It then applies an electrical current to those that wear it called a transcranial alternating current (tACS) to stimulate the brain and allegedly create better cognitive performance.

tACS is a noninvasive technique whereby alternating electrical current is applied, usually through the skin and skull. It has been repeatedly shown to modulate endogenous brain oscillations using specific frequencies.

The 3D printed headset is designed to stimulate brain with electrical signals. Photo via HUMM Tech.

3D Printing and the design cycle

HUMM Tech is building a new iteration of their design every two weeks on a 3D printer. Engineer Chris Norman, who is one of the firm’s co-founders, worked with 3D printing during his internship at NASA last year. His work involved rapid prototyping for PUFFER, an origami-inspired Martial mobility platform financed by NASA’s Game Changing Development program.

Norman has brought 3D printing into the design cycle of HUMM Tech in order to rapidly iterate versions of the device and optomise performance. The intention is to shorten the design cycle and time to market.

Speaking to 3D Printing Industry on the subject of Design for Additive Manufacturing, MIT professors Wojciech Matusik and Justin Solomon recently explained the manufacturing sector is undergoing a “major transition”.

As software tools improve and new manufacturing methods surface, the field of product design, in particular, is rapidly changing. Product prototyping is also becoming easier and faster using additive manufacturing.

HUMM Tech’s 3D printed prototype. Photo via HUMM Tech.

In coming years, design and manufacturing will be combined, placing designers close to the machinery and expert staff required to turn their concepts into physical objects. The shift from outsourcing to internal manufacturing is made possible by digitalization and automation, allowing for on-demand manufacturing. As a result, product prototyping and manufacturing have become closely interlinked.

Bringing 3D printing into the design cycle and taking a product to market can take multiple forms. For example 3D scan data may form the basis of a design, while CAD software can be used as the input source. Whether firms are working with a 3D printing service bureau or bringing 3D printing in house, it is possible to shorten the design cycle.

First eSports, then the world

University of Western Australia (UWA) Law student and CEO of HUMM Tech, Iain McIntyre, says his start-up is focusing on amplifying the potential of the human brain and improving the lives of people by offering them more control over their cognitive function.

“The device provides EEG data just like you would see in a hospital, and determines which of those frequencies should be encouraged to assist in concentration and memory,” he said.

“It then stimulates the brain by providing a light electric current when a person loses focus to help them refocus and improve their concentration.”

While the device will initially be aimed at gamers, McIntyre envisions the technology which underpins it as having a broader reach in the future.

“We’re building this headset for eSports players so they’re able to win more games, more often, and this will allow us to grow really quickly as a company,” he said.

“From there we can develop see how the technology works in application as well as develop our understanding of neuroscience so we can build more products for different purposes in the future.”

HUMM Tech co-founders, Tim Fiori and Iain McIntyre. Photo via HUMM Tech.

HUMM Tech’s project is backed by the University of Western Australia (UWA) and draws from research concerning spinal injury rehabilitation conducted by neuroscientist Tim Fiori, another co-founder of the start-up.

Fiori is confident about its potential to improve the cognitive performance of gamers and in the future wider society.

Over-hyped?

Using electricity to simulate the brain has seen something of a resurgence in recent years. One method, transcranial direct current stimulation (tCDS), is an approach similar to the technique used at HUMM Tech.

tCDS, in simplified terms, is based on the fact our brains use electrical signals. The theory goes that by recreating these signals feelings of relaxation or happiness can be triggered. Not everyone is convinced.

In a paper published in early January 2016, Jared Horvath, of the University of Melbourne, explored tCDS’ potential for simulating consistent neurophysiologic effects. The research reviewed an expansive volume of academic work in the field,  and suggested there is little evidence to suggest that tCDS generates consistently reliable “neurophysiologic effect beyond MEP amplitude modulation in healthy human subjects.”

HUMM Tech’s latest 3D printed headset in action. Photo via HUMM Tech

In an article published by the New Scientist in late 2014, British cognitive neuroscientist, Vince Walsh, also expressed doubts about tCDS as a panacea for cognitive enhancement, saying it is over-hyped.

“The effects are small, short lasting, and no substantial claims have been replicated across laboratories,” he said.

Walsh added that hyperbolic claims about tCDS products hinder the technology’s potential in the long term, and distract attention from worthwhile areas of research.

Neurotech, biology and human potential 

However,  HUMM Tech is optimistic. The firm sees the brain-computer interface as crucial to the evolution of the human race, envisioning a world where biology ceases to limit human potential.

McInTyre said the the start-up is striving to build on previously published findings that reveal brain stimulation can enhance a person’s short term memory by 100 percent. The research also suggests errors can be avoided by predicting them before they occur. McIntyre insists HUMM Tech is tackling technical and scientific challenges head on.

In 2014,  OpenBCI launched a Kickstarter funding campaign focused on biohacking. They wanted to make their low-cost brainwave controller board and accompanying 3D printed headset as affordable as possible for ordinary people.

News of HUMM Tech’s research comes as Elon Musk is attempting to thwart the rise of artificial intelligence with his latest venture, a brain-computer interface firm dubbed Neuralink. Musk hopes that marrying computers with human brains will enable punters to keep pace with machines.

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Featured image: Australian tech start-up Tech Humm tests latest prototype of their 3D printed headset.