In early 2000s the Brain Computer Interface (BCI) concept emerged, seeking to use brain and peripheral nerve information to benefit patients. More recently, BCI has been looking beyond the medical sector, to a broad range of applications in the industrial, military and consumer fields. A conjunction of neuroscience, advanced micro-technology and rapid adoption of wearables has led to the emergence of innovative start-up companies and a number of initiatives supported by public or private organizations. These new techniques and the associated players and market are at the core of Yole Développement’s analysis in the recent report Neurotechnologies and Brain Computer Interface.
Yole’s analyst, Marjorie Villien, Technology & Market Analyst specialised in Medical Imaging & Biophotonics, recently had the opportunity to interview Patrick Britz, former Brain Products’ director of Marketing, one of this field’s key players developing hardware and software solutions for neurophysiological research. Read on to discover his vision of the neurotechnology and BCI market.
Marjorie Villien: Brain Products provides all sorts of equipment for neurotechnologies. Could you tell us more about your company and your activities in the field of neurotechnologies and brain computer interface (BCI)?
Patrick Britz: Brain Products provides solutions for scientists in several fields related to neurotechnologies and BCIs. This includes, but is not limited to, the fields of Neuroadaptive Technologies, Physiological Computing, Neuroergonomics and Symbiotic Interaction. All these scientific fields use BCI technology, which is based on a measurement of brain activity, for their research. We cover the full spectrum of measurement needs, from gold-standard lab recordings with active gel-based electrodes to a fully mobile and wireless active-dry electrode recording. This equipment is fully integrated into open source toolboxes that are commonly used in the above-mentioned areas of research. The framework of our solutions and their potential are described on our webpage www.bci.plus. The BCI+ framework includes tools for classic neuroscience research, for online classification and interpretation of brain activity and the real-time synchronous recording of different data streams – from brain activity and other physiological measures like eye movements, but also standard input methods or other information generated in experimental paradigms.
MV: As part of your product portfolio, electrodes are key elements of neurosensing technologies for brain imaging. Is there any evolution of wet to dry electrodes and passive to active ones? Or does it depend on application?
PB: Yes, indeed, electrodes are a highly important component of our hardware solutions. Our portfolio includes any type of electrode that is commonly used in neuroscience or neurotechnology. This includes recordings through active electrodes providing the highest recording quality possible and a great ease of use or passive electrodes that could even be used in fMRI scanners. For research in the fields of BCI+, which is more application oriented, we additionally provide dry, sponge based and light-weight electrodes that can even be used with our fully mobile LiveAmp system. As you already mentioned, it is quite dependent on the type of application which electrode set suits you best. Therefore, we offer such a wide range of electrodes, to cover the full spectrum of needs.
MV: BCI is still a small market, worth just $118M in 2017. However, we envision expansion for the next five years, with a compound annual growth rate for 2017-2023 of 19%. What is going to be the killer application?
PB: The whole BCI+ field has been searching for so-called “killer applications” for decades. To our knowledge, none have been clearly identified yet. We think that all the efforts taken so far will lead to applications, which might firstly be in highly specialized work environments, like for surgeons, pilots or truck drivers. As soon as it becomes obvious that these areas benefit highly from BCI technology, new doors will open for broader applications of BCI technology, as the general acceptance, for wearing an EEG system for example, will rise and we might see the long-envisioned “killer application”.
MV: Brain Products is very active in developing the next generation of electrodes and wireless systems to meet the strong demand for BCI applications. Could you tell us more about the technological advances of the last few years and the technological breakthroughs to come in the field of BCI?
PB: Brain Products provides a broad range of different types of electrodes and amplifiers that can be used to record EEG in different environments. There is a clear demand in BCI-related fields for systems that are easy to use and not too distracting for the actual user but also for other people who interact with the user. So, mobile, lightweight systems that provide excellent signal quality are clearly expected in this area, and luckily, we can already provide such systems. Given that the demands of researchers are always evolving and changing, Brain Products has to remain on the cutting edge of electrode and amplifier development in order to meet the researchers growing needs. In the future, more covert systems will be expected that maybe even record brain activity in mobile humans without any physical contact to the head. But this clearly has a long way to go.
MV: We have heard a lot about active BCI technologies in the last 10 years with promises to bring back communications to patients with locked-in syndrome. These technologies are very promising. But we hear less about passive BCI, and it seems like these technologies could also have a broad impact. Could you tell us more about the possible applications for passive BCI and the technologies that are being developed?
PB: In contrast to active BCIs, passive BCIs are not dependent on voluntarily generated commands that are intentionally sent directly by the user to the machine. With that, passive BCIs can be seen as an online user state assessment that provides feedback to the machine, which then can adapt itself and its actions according to cognitive or affective changes in its user. The terms active and passive result from a user-centered perspective. Active BCIs users must actively focus on the communication with the machine, while in passive BCIs, on the other hand, the information is conveyed without any additional effort take by the user. In a closed loop interaction between a user and a machine, passive BCIs typically establish a secondary control loop that provides additional information to support the primary control loop. An example would be a driver in a car – while the driver directly interacts with the car through the steering wheel and other standard input mechanisms, a passive BCI could continuously provide information about the driver’s cognitive load to the car. While driving alone on a highway, with low cognitive load, the car could provide the driver with information, like reading out loud new emails or suggesting music; whereas, in critical situations where there is a high level of cognitive load and the driver’s full attention is needed, it may not do this to prevent any form of unnecessary distraction. Recently, a new study has shown that the use of passive BCIs is not limited to such secondary control loops. The study shows that people could control a cursor in a meaningful way by just observing and interpreting its movements. They were not aware that their cognitive reactions to individual movements were assessed by a passive BCI to inform the cursor which way is good, and which is not so good, but the cursor still found its way. This describes an example of Neuroadaptive Technology based on passive BCIs, a new type of technology where the human is more occupied with providing high level situation-based interpretations, while the machine, guided by this information, is doing the actual work. Here, the human is not burdened with translating their own thoughts into commands for the machine. This is automatically done by the passive BCI, enabling a convergence of human and machine intelligence. In our perspective, Neuroadaptive Technologies are one clear path for the future of BCI research and BCI-based application.
MV: Your company is active in Mobile Brain/Body Imaging (MoBI) as a new imaging modality using EEG and Near Infrared Spectroscopy (NIRS) to investigate brain activity while people are moving. Could you tell us a little bit more on this modality?
PB: MoBI was first developed at the Swartz Center for Computational Neuroscience (SCCN) at University of California San Diego (UCSD) under the supervision of Dr. Scott Makeig. Currently, several labs all around the world are involved in this type of research. MoBI is focused on the study of psychophysiological brain activation in humans who perform natural movements in realistic settings. This ranges from neuroscience that investigates the human brain outside of the restrictions that are typically enforced in standard laboratory settings to application-oriented research, like BCI, which aims at assessing information about brain activity in real world environments. We see quite a high potential in these types of research fields as new filter technologies and machine learning approaches allow for dealing with noise and artifacts that were typically suppressed by highly controlled laboratory setups. In addition to these techniques, development of the hardware itself – being compact, portable and fully mobile – fosters this endeavor. This enables researchers to investigate brain activity from a whole new perspective and will bring new insights into how our brain works and new types of technology that could make our lives safer, more comfortable and more productive. For this reason, we actively support the MoBI field, for example with our biennial MoBI award. MoBI researchers can send their published work to be reviewed by an independent board of scientists. The three best evaluated submissions will receive prizes that will help them to reach their scientific goals even better. This year the winners received LiveAmp systems, our fully mobile EEG recording hardware.
MV: Is there anything else you would like to tell our readers to conclude?
PB: Yes, we think that the developments of new methods of machine learning and signal processing tools open a new world of scientific research, as brain activity can be assessed and interpreted on the fly in real world environments. This enables us to learn and understand in a better way how the brain works and how to use this information to support our daily interaction with technology. Currently, it is hard to see the full potential of these new developments. At Brain Products we are actively working on contributing to this field by supporting research in this fascinating new endeavor. We would like to motivate any scientist who is interested in this research to contact us and see how we can help.
Patrick Britz studied Psychology and completed a PhD in Neuroscience, with a focus on the integration of EEG and fMRI in the context emotions and attention. He joined Brain Products in 2009 as a scientific consultant for the scientific support. After working one year at Brain Products, he was offered to lead the North American operations at Brain Vision LLC, the North American distributor. During that time, he was promoted to President of Brain Vision LLC. From 2014 until 2018, Patrick Britz was Brain Products’ director of Operative and Strategic Marketing. Since September 2018, Patrick Britz resumed his position as CEO of Brain Vision LLC.
As a Technology & Market Analyst, Medical Imaging & Biophotonics, Dr. Marjorie Villien is member of the Life Sciences & Healthcare division at Yole Développement. She is a daily contributor to the development of medical technologies activities with a dedicated collection of market & technology reports as well as custom consulting projects. As an example, Marjorie was involved in a project focused on videoscopy for endoscopy application, to understand the benefits of the CCD/CMOS solution and identify business opportunities. In parallel, she performed an analysis of the PET detectors technology to evaluate the impact of innovative Solid-State technologies on the evolution of the nuclear medicine industry. After spending two years at Harvard, Marjorie served as a research scientist at INSERM in the field of medical imaging for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, stroke and cancers. She has spoken in numerous international conferences and has authored or co-authored 11 papers and 1 patent. Marjorie is daily exchanging with clinicians, researchers and industrial partners to understand technology issues and ensure the connection between R&D and applications. Marjorie Villien graduated from Grenoble INP and holds a PhD in physics & medical imaging.