Thought Controlled Computing: An interview with Trevor Coleman, CCO, InteraXon

August 31st, 201112:34 pm @


Trevor Coleman is the CCO of InteraXon, a company specializing in the exploration of commercial uses for mind-computer interfaces.

TOMORROW: Mind-Machine interface seems to be the next logical step after gestural and voice interface, but both of those technologies are still in their relative infancy. How would you characterize the current state of thought-interface technology?

TREVOR: The technology is today where voice recognition was in the 1990s. It’s finally reached a level where it’s becoming accessible for consumer applications. And while it’s not perfect, it’s good enough to enable the first generation of new experiences and interactions that will drive widespread awareness and acceptance of the technology.

TOMORROW: How many years do you think it will take for the technology to become both effective and mainstream, and what does the world look like when that occurs?

TREVOR: Lets look at voice recognition as a model for a second: in the 1970s, it was only theoretically possible, but over the course of the 80s it got better to the point where the first commercial applications became available in the 1990s. Now, it’s included by default in every cellphone. So I’d say that in 15 to 20 years, brainwave-based technologies will be as common as voice dialling is today.

What that looks like in terms of everyday use is people tagging music, videos and pictures with their emotions on Facebook. With social networking and dating sites matching people based on their emotional responses to movies and music. It’s technology that understands how stressed you are and offers help or manages distractions. Cars that know if the driver is falling asleep. These are just a few of the types of human-computer interactions that will be possible. But just like the person who invented the mouse could never have imagined something as intensely complicated as Photoshop, many of the greatest and most compelling applications of this technology we can’t even imagine today.

TOMORROW: What does the currently available technology provide as inputs for control?

TREVOR: Consumer-level EEG systems allow for the measurement of attention and relaxation (beta and alpha waves.) Basically, the more focused your mind is the higher your beta waves and the more relaxed your mind is, the more alpha waves your brain generates. This can be read from a single sensor placed somewhere on the head. Usually on the forehead.

Consumer systems with more electrodes do exist, and with those you can get some rudimentary directional control (forward, back, up, down) but they tend to get correct readings only around 70% of the time, which, don’t get me wrong, is amazing, but has a high enough error rate to make it feel like its not working.

In the laboratory, EEG systems have been used to navigate a wheelchair around an obstacle course quite successfully, and directional control is actually quite good. So I’m sure that the state of the art in the consumer market will improve quite quickly.

When you look at invasive systems, the level of control is unbelievable, but it will be a long time yet before those systems are approved for even medical use, and even longer before the risk of invasive brain surgery is outweighed by the benefits.

TOMORROW: The marketing and experiential opportunities seem endless – can you give some examples of applications that agencies and brands should be exploring?

TREVOR: This technology allows you to show consumers something about themselves that they don’t know yet. You can, with EEG technology show them what’s happening inside themselves. Connecting that kind of experience to the right brand allows for incredibly powerful experiences.

When people are having an experience that is as entirely new as controlling something just with their thoughts, their mind is opened, and they are in a state where everything seems possible. The first time that people try our technology, almost universally, they tell us “I am so full of ideas right now!” because they’re imagining a whole future full of things they had always imagined to be impossible, but that now seem very real and very achievable. I can’t imagine why a brand wouldn’t want to be associated with that moment of excitement and imagination.

TOMORROW: Is there a fun advertising idea you’ve had that still needs to find a home?

TREVOR: Oh thousands! I’ve always thought that connecting our brainwave system to the engine of a car would be amazing. People already feel that their cars are extensions of themselves. I’ve always thought that an engine that you can rev with your thoughts would be such a great symbol for how the car anticipates and understands you. Of course, as a NASCAR fan, I’d love it to be an 800hp engine with no muffler, but a luxury sedan could work too I guess.

TOMORROW: From work you’ve completed – commercial or artistic – what’s your favorite project?

TREVOR: This is like picking one of your children over another! I think, obviously, the activation we ran during the olympics where we let people control the lights on the CN Tower, Niagara Falls and the Parliament Buildings is always going to be a sentimental favorite because of the scale and the fact that it was our first project. But the 5 Gum Chew Off we did with Wrigley’s and GMR is probably my favorite to date. I thought that we achieved a perfect alignment of the technology and the goals of the campaign. Also watching people chew as fast as they can is hilarious, so we had a lot of fun testing that experience in the office.

TOMORROW: You’re moving quickly into the realm of what was once science fiction – is there anything from pop culture that you’ve found inspiring or parallel in your work?

TREVOR: Well we did once make a thought-controlled version of the game from Star Trek: The Next Generation, which is about as direct a parallel as you’re going to get.

Science Fiction depictions of brain-computer interfaces are kind of a double edged sword for us. On the plus side they definitely help get people excited and give us some easy cultural touchstones when we’re first communicating with people. On the downside though, many of the depictions in science fiction are based on flawed understandings of how the brain works, or what is actually possible with any technology, so they create a lot of unfounded fears in people. That’s one of the reasons we work so hard to make our interactions intuitive, friendly and understandable. And we strive to communicate clearly about how the technology works, and what it can or can’t do. Once we reassure people that we can’t read words or pictures from their mind, they breathe a lot easier.

TOMORROW: What’s next for InteraXon over the coming year?

TREVOR: Well we have some amazing pitches out to clients right now, with a couple of agencies that we met with in New York, and we’ll be really excited to get started on those once we hear back. We’re going into a fundraising cycle to raise some capital to begin work on our own consumer product which we’re aiming to release in 2013. And of course, we’ll be making good use of our thought-controlled beer tap when we work weekends.