New developments in augmented reality and virtual reality are announced every day. There are already incredible AR and VR devices out on the market today that deliver experiences unheard of just 10 years ago. Keeping true to form, the next step in the evolution of full immersion is something that sounds impossible now but may be a common technology in a few years: neuroreality.
It’s All in Your Head
What is neuroreality? At first glance, it sounds like a word to describe a fabricated concept in a sci-fi movie. In actuality, it is the act of altering the perception of reality through a direct interface with the human brain. This is known as brain-computer interfacing (BCI).
Virtual and augmented reality typically rely on the manipulation of visual, auditory, and tactile senses. BCI simply requires access to your brain signals. There are currently two different approaches to accomplishing this: non-invasive and invasive.
Both methods allow for our brains to basically communicate with machines directly. The main differences between the two revolve around the level of involvement needed to do so and the efficiency in communication.
The most common method for non-invasive BCI is electroencephalography (EEG). A cap of electrodes covers the scalp of the BCI user. The electrodes pick up brain signals through the skull. A machine such as a computer then acts in response to these signals.
Recording the brain signals through this method can be difficult and inaccurate. It is more efficient if the user applies a conductive gel to their scalp before putting on the electrode cap. But obviously, this is highly impractical for everyday use. This is why there are many people that believe this technology will not become commercially viable without the use of invasive measures such as implanting a device in the brain.
Joy Lyons, CTO of audio tech startup company OSSIC, lies in the latter camp. She believes neuroreality will not become viable with non-invasive methods. To accomplish this, she believes the answer is “a chip in the brain.”
Two Trains of Thought
Non-invasive and invasive BCI methods have caused a great divide among the tech community as to which will bring greater benefits to humanity. That has not stopped startups from springing up that have placed all their bets on one side or the other.
EyeMynd is one such company that wants to create a VR system that uses non-invasive BCI. The young startup formed by physicist Dan Cook in 2013 hopes to allow a user to explore a virtual world with nothing more than a headset utilizing EEG.
“When you’re in a virtual world—whether you’re playing a game or something else—you don’t want to have to keep thinking about what you’re doing with your hands.”
– Dan Cook
While admitting that the little information that makes it through the human skull is hard to act upon with normal EEG, Cook explains that EyeMynd has it all under control: “We’re using the mathematics of quantum physics to build a new type of deep brain learning software—not reliant on neural networks—that works really well for human brainwaves.”
EyeMynd is not the only company that sees promise in BCI. Boston-based company Neurable and Emotiv, a bioinformatics company based in San Francisco, are also working on leveraging thought for neuroreality. Perhaps for all of these companies though, their biggest competitor is Facebook, who purchased famed VR headset maker Oculus in 2014. The social network titan also has its own non-invasive BCI in the works.
On the invasive BCI method side, we have Neuralink, a company founded by Elon Musk last year. Neuralink is on a mission to augment the human brain with artificial intelligence by implanting electrodes for communication. Similarly, Bryan Johnson, founder of Braintree, recently invested $100 million dollars in his new company called Kernel. Kernel’s main goal is to make implantable brain chips that could help treat neurological diseases.
Whether it comes to neuroreality, augmentation, or the treatment of diseases, the use of brain-computer interfacing remains largely untread territory. By directly feeding our brains signals to trigger simulations and experiences, we can forgo the clunky gloves, goggles, and other peripherals usually needed for a more immersive VR experience today.
Elon Musk believes that computer simulations will one day look so real that it will be impossible to tell they are simulations. Brain-computer interfacing could be the key to making it possible to feel the sun or go on a roller coaster without ever leaving your house.
Both forms of BCI have their share of hurdles to overcome before becoming mainstream. Most people are turned off by the idea of getting a chip implanted in their heads. And as discussed before, current EEG methods still need heavy refinement before becoming viable.
These challenges have not deterred people from trying, and that could be all the difference. After all, it was not too long ago when there were more naysayers than supporters of viable virtual reality. Now, it is a thriving industry that is accelerating every day. Plus, it could very well be that both forms of BCI will be advantageous in different avenues. Perhaps non-invasive BCI will be enough for fully immersive VR while invasive BCI will be reserved for permanent augmentation.
EyeMynd will release a developer kit for their EEG VR headset soon. They will follow this up with a device compatible with the HTC Vive sometime in 2017. Eventually, they would like to get the price of their headset under $100 to reach mass market.