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This Doll Reads Your Brain Waves in Real Time

A new tool is aimed at helping novices understand brain wave-recording technology.

Electroencephalography (EEG) brain wave detection is extensively used in neuroscience and medicine, and researchers are looking at ways to leverage brain wave detection into a kind of simple, jury-rigged brain-to-brain communication system. Despite these advancements, it's still a technology misunderstood by some if not many. Does it let you read minds? Not exactly, but it can be useful in certain situations.

Developing tools to help the public to understand how EEG works is key to its eventual adoption by mainstream culture (games, for example), according to the creators of Teegi, an adorable little doll that displays the brain activity of an EEG helmet wearer in real time. Using a system of projectors and motion-capturing cameras, Teegi also creates an augmented-reality space where users can physically interact with the visualization.

By providing a hands-on, visual EEG experience that's far more intuitive and easy to understand than most software interfaces and apps, Teegi aims to improve the average person's understanding of the technology. After all, a detailed readout probably isn't going to mean much to you if you've never even heard of "biofeedback" before.

A typical EEG display may be difficult for newbies to understand. Screenshot: YouTube.

"[EEG] feeds into fears and dreams in the general public where many fantasies are linked to a misunderstanding of the strengths and weaknesses of such new technologies," the authors wrote in a paper describing their approach. "Our motivation is to provide a tool that allows one to better learn how EEG works, and to better understand the kinds of brain activity that can be detected in EEG signals."

EEG works by recording the electrical activity in the brain with electrodes and amplifying the signal so it can be processed and encoded in software. The processed signal is then usually mapped to some kind of control output, like a robot arm. Getting said robot arm to move isn't as easy as thinking "move," or even imagining your own arm moving, however. EEG is not that intuitive. Thinking "left" or "right," for example, may be mapped to any number of actions.

Teegi is a cute, trumped-up toy that can help people unfamiliar with these nuances of EEG—older adults, children, and anybody else—to understand what kinds of signals are picked up by the technology and what regions of the brain they correspond to.

The team, made up of computer scientists specializing in brain-computer interfaces from the French Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation as well as the University of Bordeaux and the University of Lorraine, presented Teegi at the 2014 ACM symposium on User Interface Software and Technology back in October.

To operate Teegi, the user first dons an electrode-covered EEG helmet that records the electrical activity in their brain. The signals are then processed with software and sent to projectors above and in front of the user. Visualizations of the electrical activity in the user's brain are then projected as a multicolored display on a translucent ball that acts as Teegi's mock cranium. An interactive virtual interface is also projected on the user's table.

A diagram of the full Teegi setup. Two projectors (A and D) provide visualizations on Teegi and the action areas of the table (E and F), while a camera motion tracking setup (B and C) captures the user's movements.

Several mini-Teegi dolls representing different brain functions—motor controls, vision, and meditation—can be placed in Teegi's vicinity to filter the EEG signals and only display those associated with the selected brain function. A specialized cursor can be moved around to adjust the amplitude, or intensity, of the visualization.

The team performed a pilot study on 10 subjects who reported being initially unfamiliar with EEG technology. The subjects were given one and a half hours alone with Teegi and a series of tasks to complete that required them to explore its functions. After the test, nearly all of the subjects reported having little technical trouble, a fuller understanding of the relationship between their brain waves and EEG recording technology, and an overall positive experience.

In short, Teegi was a hit.

As for what's next for Teegi, the researchers plan to further investigate how effective the system is as a learning tool through wider-scale trials. They also plan on upgrading its capabilities with features like real-time brain wave filter creation.

"In the future, we plan to make a more in-depth investigation into how well users are able to learn about EEG and brain activity with Teegi," the authors wrote. "To this end, we will conduct dedicated experiments with students and/or visitors in scientific museums."

Teegi is still in the research and development stage, and owning a full motion-tracking and projection system for EEG likely isn't practical for most folks. Still, developing novel ways to ease novices into using new technology is a laudable endeavor. That Teegi itself is cute as a button is merely icing on the cake.