Brain-computer interfaces, or BCIs, are having a moment: Big tech companies have invested in developing these neurotechnologies–designed to connect brains to digital machinery–specifically making substantive acquisitions of EEG-based neurotechnology startups in recent years. Companies like Blackrock Neurotech, Neuralink, and Synchron, working on surgery-based implanted BCI technology, are beginning to enter the medical device market. The companies have raised an aggregate of US $323 million to create interfaces for medical devices in 2021.
The investments could one day install devices on or onto some people’s heads. However, the technology the devices are based on–decoding brain processes into helpful control signals for computer systems — has been carried out successfully in labs of academics for many decades. The maths of programming and math involved is within reach for many engineers. However, the equipment required is costly to the average DIYer. With amplifiers and electrodes costing hundreds or even millions of dollars, DIY neurotech was, until recently, beyond the reach of many.
It is designed to attach to its Raspberry Pi, resulting in an easy-to-access, all-in-one Brain-computer Interface (BCI) to develop.
Today, however, open-source neural hardware and software development are appearing on the marketplace alongside high-profile hardware from more resource-rich large tech companies. PiEEG, developed by Ildar Rakhmatulin, BCI researcher at Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University, is an EEG acquisition board accessible on the crowdfunding site Crowd Supply for $250. It is made to be easily connected to the comparatively low-cost, free Raspberry Pi computer making it a remarkably accessible complete BCI technology platform for development.
Rakhmatulin was introduced to neuroscience hardware made open source after he was interested in using machine-learning techniques within BCI systems but needed help locating suitable hardware to play with. “I wanted to use hardware that was already available but did not find any low-cost or comfortable devices on the market,” explained Rakhmatulin. After a few hours of studying the basics along with his colleagues from Heriot-Watt, company, he came up with ironic, which is a biosignal-based acquisition system that can be used to acquire electroencephalogram (EEG) or electrocardiogram (ECG) as well as Electromyogram (EMG) records.
The Ironbci platform proved to be a great success. Still, the development of the system could have been more robust due to the global shortage of chips due to the global COVID-19 epidemic’s impact on electronic manufacture and the supply chain. With a source for the necessary chips to build the system, Rakhmatulin could create or sell them to customers. “The cost of the device significantly increased,” the engineer explained. “Initially it was around $200 for an 8-channel system, but that quickly went up to $1,000 per unit, and even those chips were hard to get.”
To do the best, Rakhmatulin refashioned the signal-conditioning components of the board to create an extension module that could work using the Raspberry Pi. “I didn’t want to give up!” said Rakhmatulin. “The time I worked on ironbci made me extremely interested to work with BCI systems. I decided to create a second board using an electronic device called the Raspberry Pi because it’s a powerful single-board computer that’s not a PC There are plenty of them, and I have many years of experiences working with these devices.” The resultant design was named the PiEEG.
Although Rakhmatulin developed PiEEG in the spirit of an open-source initiative that anyone could use to create, he realized that many researchers looking to utilize the device wanted to do something other than create it. Although open-source hardware schematics are available to anyone to download and create their own devices, making the boards or sending models to companies was only feasible for some potential users of PiEEG. Although some engineers like Rakhmatulin might have a good understanding of how to build a device, the engineer noticed that most of those who reached him were looking to purchase the machines already made. “I explained to them that I’m not a seller; I’m just an open-source contributor,” explained Rakhmatulin. “I expected everyone could do it themselves, but nobody wanted to.” Rakhmatulin started working with the crowdfunding site Crowd Supply to fulfill the demands to offer the PiEEG board directly.
The devices are expected to start shipping in November 2023. However, PiEEG is only some of the hardware available to the BCI-curious Crowd Supply. A similar device is the HackEEG. It was created by Adam Feuer, which extends the programable and easily-programmable Arduino Due Platform to analyze and process signals like EEG and ECG. Feuer created the device in conjunction with Rakhmatulin and with similar motives seeking to explore and create BCI and other biosignal systems but was still looking for a viable hardware option. Feuer discovered that even while he tried to keep the hardware design open, many people would purchase the device instead of developing it on their own. “I did this to learn more about BCI,” Feuer stated. “I was surprised people don’t want to contribute to open hardware, but crowdsourc[ing] helped to get them the device.”