I am a fashion-tech designer: I combine fashion with engineering, science, and interactive user-experience technologies. When worn, many of my designs monitor physiological indicators—such as heart rate—and react to this information in some way, communicating the wearer’s internal state. In 2016, I was in Linz, Austria, as an Ars Electronica Futurelabartist-in-residence, and I decided to take the opportunity to see if I could apply my techniques therapeutically.
The result was a headpiece that helps children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and their caregivers better understand what environmental cues are associated with symptomatic problems. In April, the underlying technology became commercially available for makers interested in brain-computer interfaces (BCIs).
When I arrived in Linz, I was already interested in electroencephalography (EEG) devices, which measure the brain’s electrical activity, as I saw them as an extension of my earlier work. Through Ars Electronica I met Dominik Laister at the nearby Barmherzige Brüder Hospital, who became a valuable advisor. After consulting with him, I decided to focus on what is known as the P300 event-related brain potential signal. P300 is a frequent focus of clinical exams and BCI research. It is a voltage pulse, often thought to be connected to attention and decision making, that occurs a few hundred milliseconds after an external stimulus. The P300 signal is often measured when diagnosing children with ADHD because the signal takes longer to manifest and isn’t as strong as it is in children without ADHD.
ADHD is commonly treated with stimulants such as Adderall that can boost concentration and focus while reducing hyperactive and impulsive behaviors. But while medication might help soothe symptoms, it doesn’t help in understanding why a child with ADHD is more prone to react to certain stimuli, or how their symptoms might be treated in a way that reduces reliance on drugs.
My goal was to create a device that would provide the data needed for such insights by monitoring both the brains of children and their environments. The result was Agent Unicorn—a headpiece with a projecting horn. The horn contains an 8-megapixel camera that records video during states of heightened P300 activity, as detected by an EEG built into the headpiece itself. The headpiece has a shape that automatically positions the electrodes at the correct locations on the skull.
Playful Technology: The author places an Agent Unicorn headpiece on a child’s head [top]. A camera in the base of the horn [bottom] captures video that is transmitted to a computer when the EEG detects, via its electrodes, a particular type of brain wave associated with attention.
To create Agent Unicorn, I did not want to use any of the commercial EEG devices then available. The cheaper devices lacked good data-acquisition and processing capabilities—many of them used a single electrode that touched the forehead and struggled to distinguish between electrical activity caused by brain waves and activity caused by muscle contractions. Medical-grade systems were steeply priced—up to US $10,000 for a clunky, albeit reliable, device.
So I began collaborating with Christoph Guger, the founder and co-CEO of G.tec, a medical engineering company located near Linz. G.tec is a large producer of EEG equipment and software, mainly supplying hospitals and other medical clients. But Guger has a keen interest in the new generation of makers who want to use neurological data in their projects. Because I was specifically interested in the P300 signal, we were able to trim the number of electrodes down from the conventional 64 to eight. We developed a miniature EEG board that connects to electrodes that can be used without applying conductive gel.
In the headpiece, the EEG board is connected to a Raspberry Pi Zero W single-board computer. The Pi also receives a continual video feed from the horn camera. When a P300 event is detected, the Pi wirelessly sends a video clip incorporating the 3 seconds before the event and the 5 seconds after to a laptop computer, so that what captured the wearer’s attention can be reviewed.
By July 2016 I had a few headpieces with horns in a variety of shapes. In collaboration with 3D-printing specialist Igor Knezevic in Los Angeles, we researched an even wider range of horn shapes and colors, and then began trying Agent Unicorn out with real children. We soon discovered that the more playful and weird a horn was, the more eager the children were to try it on.
One of the advantages of Agent Unicorn is the chance to gather data when a child is in a mental state closer to that of their day-to-day life, due to the more natural environments that the headpiece can be used in, and the agency it offers children. Instead of a doctor measuring their brain activity in a clinic, while they’re chained to a machine via 64 head-mounted electrodes, children can pick up and place the device on their heads themselves while in a playroom or classroom.
The Agent Unicorn headpieces also have LEDs that flash during P300 events. This can make a therapist’s job easier by highlighting moments when a child becomes especially attentive, and this can suggest points of departure for nonpharmaceutical therapeutic measures.
While clinical studies are in progress to confirm the value of using Agent Unicorn to treat children with ADHD, G.tec has recently released a US $1,100 version with the Unicorn EEG for scientists, makers, and artists. This version comes without the camera horn, and uses a soft skullcap to hold and position the electrodes. A Bluetooth connection transmits data for real-time analysis using a number of different programming languages.
My aim is to create a learning system that brings more self-awareness to wearers and helps them identify subconscious brain activity. Anyone can wear this to measure their activity and to draw conclusions from it. For example, how do we react to various colors? Does seeing a piece of chocolate produce a spike? Or how do we respond to hearing our own names? If you want to try the device yourself without buying it, join us at one of the BR41N.io hackathons for BCI designers at venues around the world!
This article appears in the June 2019 print issue as “A Brain Interface to Capture Your Attention.”