In late 2012, surrounded by an entire crowd, a group of young people proved that the mind has the potential to be a remote control device.
Using an EEG helmet, a volunteer could move a little car by the sheer power of thought, as it were. It was the perfect opportunity to engage in a discussion about Modulab, the laboratory that set up the experiment, and about Arduino, the interactive platform that made possible putting into the tiny car motion. Let’s take them one by one.
Modulab is an interdisciplinary platform, promoting research and development for new expression methods and technologies in art and in the creative industries. It is an open platform addressed to those for whom simply pushing a button is no longer enough. It is for those who want to make their own buttons, to change them and use them for more than they were designed for, for those who take things apart to see what they have inside, for those who like problems more than they like solutions, which is why they seek the most elegant solutions.
Modulab is a place where a piece of wire can turn into a gadget. Here artists, programmers and technicians are encouraged to see things from a completely different angle, free themselves of convention, and to create. Ioana Calen is one of Modulab’s founders. She told us in a few words what Arduino is:
Ioana Calen: “Arduino is an interactive platform, which creates communication between a computer and the surrounding environment, and its creation has been compared with the emergence of the personal computer. Just as there has been a sudden shift from the mechanic paradigm to the digital one, once computers have started being used by everyone without having to study computer science, now we have an interactive paradigm with the use of the Arduino platform. You don’t have to be an engineer or to have technical studies, you have to know a minimum of programming, which you can learn in one day; the board in itself is very accessible, any student can buy it with minimal effort on-line. Think of the impact that computers had on the creative industries: film, fine arts, etc. This concept of micro-controller board with a friendly interface, which can be used by anyone, will have a similar impact. Brain waves will be used to move objects in one’s real environment, such as drapes, installations, all using an Emotiv helmet.”
The EEG Emotiv is an accessory developed from the computer game industry. It measures electric fluctuations on the scalp. When the wearer makes a cognitive effort, the electric impulses on certain areas are picked up by the helmet and get transmitted to the computer through the Arduino board, and this is how objects in the environment can be moved. The demonstration we spoke of in the beginning used such a helmet, and Ioana Calen told us about it:
Ioana Calen:“It is set for you to concentrate and to push the little car back and forth, to go left when you blink and to go right when you smile. We got a volunteer from the audience and trained him a bit before, we got him to do the same exercises with a virtual cube to push back and forth. We gauged his brain activity, to use as a benchmark. When he focused on pushing the car, the car moved. I had the good luck of finding a volunteer who was a gamer, and was used to using his imagination in a virtual environment, he wasn’t tense, and managed to move the toy car right from the start.”
Paul Popescu, Ioana Calen’s colleague at Modulab, said that anyone can use the helmet, not only gamers. He said that you only need training:
Paul Popescu: “It’s like having to learn to use an additional limb or learn to play an instrument, it is the same thing, you need lots of practice. It was very hard at first, it took us three days to learn four or five moves working hard with the helmet. In time you start gaining skills, it’s like learning an instrument, that’s what it was like for me.”
Demonstrations are made precisely to showcase the potential of the new technologies, says Ioana Calen:
Ioana Calen: “What would be truly interesting is for this technology to help people with special needs to find their way more easily within their own homes. There is this EEG helmet and all lights in the house, including natural light, are controlled and adjusted to the subject’s mood, pulse, etc. Depending on these parameters, curtains can be drawn, or lights of certain colors can be switched on. Technically, this is perfectly feasible, logistically it is a little more difficult, but simpler applications can be put together. Interaction is possible by means of sensors. At present these technologies are used a lot in art, in art installations, but I am very certain that soon they will be used for practical purposes as well. In hospitals, for instance, I’d love to see interactive installations in children’s areas, to distract them from the thought of going into surgery. I’d love to see robotic pets in centres for the elderly. I believe technology will become a part of people’s intimate life, rather than being a strictly functional component. A lot of people still don’t realize how easy it is to do whatever they want if they know where to look, who to ask and where to find the things they need.”
Paul Popescu believes in sharing knowledge:
Paul Popescu: “I believe this kind of business model, where one party offers its research, experiments and solutions, will be gaining ground. Because you offer your knowledge, free of charge, and knowledge thus propagates at a much higher speed. More people will have access to it and further progress will be a lot faster.”
Modulab aims to create a para-academic platform for all students in creative and other fields. The goal of this platform is to share knowledge and technology democratically, Ioana Calen explains:
Ioana Calen: “Students often complain that what they are taught in school no longer fits with what they find on the internet. When they see an interactive installation they think it is science fiction, they are under the impression that you need a million euros just to set up a lab that has to do with technology, they think you need to be a programmer in order to make a sensor-operated installation, and they think that, unless you are an engineer, you cannot sort out the electricity part. This is no longer valid, not for a long time. There are solutions that make everything easier. All they need is the courage to ask and do a little research. And above all, they need to start working.”