Keeping an Open Mind

Is the age of “thinkput” upon us?

The idea of brain-controlled computer interfaces always seems guaranteed to generate column inches. Although often perceived as freakishly futuristic, commercial products using brain–computer interfaces have existed for more than a decade, and research goes back to the 1970s. Those focussed on the technology have aimed to use it to solve problems, for example, to grant greater autonomy to severely motor-impaired people or beef up defence capabilities with weaponry controlled by this type of input.

Alongside these approaches, there has long been talk of the potential for brain–computer interfaces to become a part of everyday computing. When Neuralink, a company backed by Elon Musk, put a chip in the brain of a pig earlier in 2020, this arguably took us one step closer toward the goal of direct interfacing between the human brain and computers. Of course, any attempt to add chips to human brains would get an entirely different reaction, but some companies are continuing to work toward this ambitious target through alternative avenues.

NextMind, a Paris-based start-up, is a pioneer in this area, and last week began shipping a wearable brain–computer interface kit for developers. What sets NextMind apart is that it focusses on neurotechnology specializing in non-invasive neural interfaces. By taking away the need for brain-implanted chips, a wearable headset allows for users to interact with the technology only when needed.

We first tried NextMind’s technology at CES 2020, where the prototype product won several awards (see Wearables Insight: Event Report: CES 2020). In a demonstration of the device, we were able to change the colour of a connected smart light using only thought. At the time we concluded that the product was especially well-suited to binary commands like “on” and “off”, but expected it to develop rapidly and hoped to see improved uses in the future.

As promised at CES 2020, the company is now selling a development kit to enable the creation of products and services supported by a brain–computer interface, providing users with the ability to control software and devices through the power of thought. Although NextMind’s development kit can be used to build solutions relying only on “thinkput,” a brain–computer interface can also complement other types of input for devices like augmented or virtual reality headsets, or controllers such as game pads.

The direction of travel here is clear. In October 2019, we predicted that brain–computer interfaces will evolve beyond medical applications into commercial offerings by 2027 as the ability to control devices using your brain improves. At the time, we anticipated that the technology would develop to a point where it could be used as an additional user interface for several commercial applications, with usage eventually spreading from business environments to consumer settings (see CCS Insight Predictions for 2020 and Beyond).

In this context, we believe technologies such as those being developed by NextMind hold a great deal of promise for a future generation of device interfaces, potentially enhancing the user experience of gaming, entertainment and even healthcare devices. This points to some exciting long-term improvements, not just for consumer electronics, but also devices for impaired users. This touch of science fiction is something to think about for product developers.

As more and more of our world gets connected, discussion will continue about the best way for humans to interact with the devices around us. Brain-controlled interfaces are likely to remain a big part of that conversation, and with companies like NextMind continuing to push the boundaries of innovation, this looks set to be a fascinating area of tech progress in the next few years.