DOD pushes development of cheap, portable brain-reading device


October 10, 2013

The US Department of Defense is pushing for the development of cheap, wearable systems that can detect the brain waves of people and display the data on smartphones or tablets (Image: Shutterstock)

The US Department of Defense is pushing for the development of cheap, wearable systems that can detect the brain waves of people and display the data on smartphones or tablets (Image: Shutterstock)

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Innovation is all about putting on the proverbial thinking cap. Now engineers are vying to produce an actual thinking cap – at least one that can measure the most rudimentary signals of thought. The US Department of Defense is pushing for the development of cheap, wearable systems that can detect the brain waves of people and display the data on smartphones or tablets.

This past spring, the DOD awarded four companies design grants through the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, which is designed to spur the development of technologies not already available in the commercial market. A Phase I grant in the amount of $100,000 has been awarded, with those entities competing for a possible Phase II grant that could total $750,000 or more.

The Pentagon has called for the development of a small, low-cost device (perhaps as cheap as $30) to measure electroencephalography, the voltage fluctuations that occur as neurons fire within the brain. The device would work in conjunction with an app to deliver real-time information on neural activity to a tablet or smartphone.

While EEG readings are most often used to provide data on those with head injuries or who suffer seizures, the DOD notes that more recently EEG has been explored commercially in "neuro-marketing" and to provide neuro-feedback via brain-computer interfaces, allowing people to move objects or play computer games with their mind.

While an array of technologies can give indications of brain activity, EEG offers several advantages – mainly portability and cost. But the technology has several hurdles, including the knotty problem of trying to get an accurate reading of tiny impulses in the brain even as bone, scalp and hair muddle the reception.

In the near term, the DOD sees cheap EEG devices being included in field first-aid kits to provide near-instantaneous analysis of an injured soldier's brain activity.

"For instance, if somebody was exposed to a blast and an individual goes out who is the medic, ... within his kit he has this EEG system folded up," says Brent Winslow, lead scientist at Design Interactive in Oviedo, Florida, which is working on the SBIR grant. "The individual just wears this unit for two to five minutes and you are able to assess quantitatively the presence of an injury."

While there are limits to what level of "thinking" such a cap can detect, an accurate, affordable and portable EEG system could open up other applications.

"The thing about EEG is that we are detecting what we consider a coarse signal," says Michael Elconin, CEO of San Diego-based Cognionics, another SBIR entrant. "The question is how much information you can extract from that signal. For the foreseeable future – and in my opinion, probably forever – we will not be able to use EEG to figure out what people are thinking.

"One of the things we can sense with EEG ... [is] what I’ll call 'states of consciousness,'" Elconin continues. "Say you are a sentry looking out across a field [and] to make sure no one is there. You are looking and looking, and all of a sudden you see someone running: your brain will generate a very specific brain wave pattern because it recognizes something it is looking for."

Massachusetts-based SI2 Technologies has previously worked on technology embedded in soldier helmets to better spot traumatic brain injury. The company hopes to use digital printing technology to produce comfortable caps embedded with sensors to capture EEG data.

Also working on the problem is Hanover, New Hampshire-based Creare.

It is not the first time the U.S. military has brainstormed ways to tap the inner recess of the mind. In 2008, the DOD awarded $4 million to researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, the University of California Irvine and the University of Maryland to investigate ways people can communicate using brain waves.

At the time, Army Research Office manager Elmar Schmeisser acknowledged in a statement to the American Forces Press Service that "the mathematics behind this is fierce" and any breakthrough could be two decades distant. But in 2011 University of Maryland researchers indicated they were making major headway in the effort.

The imagination is the limit when it comes to any thought of a brain-wave reader app in every smartphone – but the DOD sees immediate potential as an educational tool in biology classes, biology classes, with students recording their brain activity and downloading data to a tablet.

And the DOD is thinking bigger things on the commercial front – with ready access to brain-recording devices and apps, neuroscientists might be able to crowdsource solutions to neuroscience problems, collectively.

Wrap your mind around that.


No doubt this will circumvent the controversy surrounding the NSA spying. Brain reading is open source, I suppose.


Well golly, if experimenting with thought reading and mind control would be controversial as a secret government project, why not make it an app and let people do it to themselves. What do you want to bet that buried in the program is a command to upload data online? And why the hell not? If people are dumb enough to put something like this on their damn phones to begin with, they're too dumb to care what really happens to the data the thing collects!

Romaine Spence

The power hungry will never stop. Would be nice if it was intended for non-military applications.


In an 1984 kind of World, this would be simply a WONDROUS tool to use, a brain scan device to explore what you might be thinking if tweaked right.

Think about it. A group of Sheeple have been rounded up. As the FEMA Commandant, do you have people that warrant holding, a swift visit to Madame Guillotine, or to be let loose to graze obediently some more?

A quick head scan reveals all. There might even be the possibility to correct some incorrect thinking patterns. The doorway to a Brave New World is within reach. The NSA is waiting...


Is it possible to have a card reader connect a specific brain wave to a specific card for security purposes. Is the specific brainwave of a person discreet enough to identify brainwave's like a finger prints ?

Ken Henshaw

Negative talk is the reason we fail. For whatever reason a technology is conceived and whatever its original purpose, ultimately as a species, it leaves us with a gain.

Realistically, any such research is welcome in the worldwide effort to link minds collectively.

Government control. Yeah maybe, for a time. And to a percentage of people the will themselves into servitude and obedience. This percentage of the population have been and always will prefer to be controlled. They prefer it because it is their security blanket.

But for the rest of the world, an opportunity to link mind and thought into collective groups of people with common ideas.

Your own private world in the mind of one individual or on a sentient machine, like somewhere between Matrix and Inception if you will.

Creative minds link to solve complex problems that plague humanity, assisted in real time by quantum computers and the entire library of known human knowledge.

Old or disabled, living in their prime in a make belief world occasionally visited by their family and friends. Passing in a dignified way.

Online gaming with a realism unmatched

And of course remote control of drones and other mecha not for war, but for search and rescue, exploration and recreation.

The only people you really need to be afraid of are those that discourage technology and knowledge.

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