Hack the Brain. How would you go about ‘extending the mind and augmenting the senses’? Quite a challenge, isn’t it?

The NERRI team at the London School of Economics organised the UK’s first ‘brain hackathon’ to explore this very question.

During the UK’s first ‘brain hackathon’, we brought together neuroscientists, engineers, designers and coders from all walks of life for an intense weekend of building and making.

It all started with the idea to do something different from our earlier activities, that was more practical and hands-on. The format of the hackathon seemed like a perfect solution. It is a focused, effective and fun event, where participants devote a weekend’s worth of effort to the development of a project, from the initial idea all the way to a functioning prototype. Hackathons emerged in the IT industry as a collaborative method for addressing problems and finding new solutions, but more recently it has been applied to a wide variety of topics ranging from space exploration to healthcare. Thanks to contacts to the Waag Society and the Donders Institute, facilitated by our Dutch NERRI partners we received a wealth of helpful advice from the organisers of the first European brain hackathon, which took place last year in Amsterdam.

We secured a venue for the hackathon in the fabulous co-working space Makerversity, situated in the iconic Somerset House, right in the heart of London. In mid-February we launched a website and disseminated our invitation via various online channels to future brain hackers. There was overwhelming interest to tinker with the brain and we received over 80 applications for the 40 slots we had available. Participants came from a rich mix of backgrounds, including first year undergraduates as well as IT professionals with decades of experience.

Kicking things off

To inspire the participants and to kickstart their ideation process about the kinds of projects they might want to explore, we organised a launch event at the LSE one week before the start of the actual hackathon. This took place on a lucky Friday the 13th, which is probably why the video capture system in the lecture theatre broke down, so we are unable to share the fantastic talks that our guests delivered...

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Jon Spooner, Artistic Director of Unlimited Theatre spoke about the spirit of hackathons and told the inspiring story of how participating at such an event brought him all the way to witnessing a NASA rocket launch. Eddy Davelaar, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Birkbeck University presented about the state-of-the-art in consumer brain-computer interfaces and showcased some innovative applications. Luke Robert Mason, futurist and CEO of The New Bionics introduced the idea of treating the body as a platform for exploring and expanding the realm of human experience. Giles Hamilton-Fletcher, Postdoc at the University of Sussex, delivered a riveting talk about sensory substitution. Continuing the thread from Luke’s and Giles’ presentations, Yifei Chai, Innovation Architect at Unit9, spoke about all the ways in which our visual and auditory perception are ‘hacked’ already. Finally, Raymond Lo, Chief Technology Officer at META gave a live demonstration of one of the most advanced augmented reality headsets in the world. See here for a short video. The talks were each followed by a Q&A with our future brain hackers and carried on late into the night at a pub on the LSE campus.

Pitching & Hacking

The hackathon began on the following week’s Friday evening. After brief welcome addresses by the NERRI team, Conor Russomanno, Co-Founder of OpenBCI delivered a short talk about the state-of-the-art in open source brain-computer interfaces and gave inspiring examples of what others had already built, like various brain controlled robotics projects.

Then, everyone who had a project idea about brain hacking and extending the mind or the senses had 60 seconds to pitch in front of everyone. Participants came with a wonderful range of ideas, from reducing cognitive biases with a mobile app, to creating a meditation training system based on heart-rate variability and EEG neurofeedback. We then used a simple voting mechanism to select the 10 best project ideas and allowed teams to form organically.

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Saturday morning marked the beginning of the actual work. The day kicked off with a 0-60 workshop on using the OpenBCI platform for gathering biometric data such as EEG, EMG or ECG. Many of the teams decided to use various brain-computer interface devices, and some attempted to combine these with other gadgets, such as virtual reality headsets, augmented reality goggles, or even transcranial direct-current stimulation. Glancing around the room just a few hours into the hackathon one could see lots of wires and EEG electrodes strapped on people’s heads as teams worked feverishly to make their projects get off the ground. Some were oriented towards commercial viability, others seemed to have been motivated by research interests, curiosity, or artistic exploration.

The two winners announced at the end of Hack the Brain were ‘Emography’ and ‘WinkIt’. Emography stands for emotional cartography and the team used EEG and heart-rate variability data to plot a user’s emotional state in real-time on Google Maps. You can catch a brief interview with them on Sky News. Participants in the team ‘WinkIt’ set out to create an EEG controlled smartphone interface and although they failed at delivering that, the team managed to produce a functioning application that allowed control over several functions of an Android phone by using nothing but winks, which were picked up by two electrodes placed on the user’s temple. Winners were selected by a panel of judges representing several domains of expertise, like art, neuroscience, entrepreneurship, and public engagement. The London Science Museum offered a cash prize for the winner, along with the opportunity to present at the Museum’s extraordinary ‘You Have Been Upgraded’, festival of human enhancement, where brain hackers had a large area to showcase their work. An additional prize, comprising two EEG headsets and a full software package was offered by Myndplay.

The other teams worked on equally impressive projects. Using the Oculus developer kit, the Emotiv BCI headset and 3d gesture recognition hardware, the team ‘In the Rift’ attempted to combine EEG readings with virtual reality and gesture control in such a way that the virtual environment’s features would change on the basis of the users brain activity.

Enthusiastic Cambridge undergraduates gathered under the name ‘Metatheta’ tried to build a BCI into Meta’s latest augmented reality goggles. Unfortunately, the team ran into some technical difficulties, but with a quick pivot, they developed a blink controlled virtual reality game of the Flappy Bird genre.

Members of the team ‘Visualize’ sought to bring neuroscience knowledge closer to the public by launching a real-time, web-based EEG data visualizer.

A trio under the name ‘Anything Will Do’ set themselves the ambitious goal of combining EEG and EMG data, that is, readings from the brain and from muscle activity, in order to develop a system that can predict hand motion purely based on brain activity.

A team of experienced brain hackers under the sci-fi sounding name ‘NeuroCraft’ managed to create a system that can simultaneously record EEG data, while administering transcranial direct-current stimulation, and it can do all this via a remote web-based platform.

Last but not least, if you ever wanted to know what your sleeping brain looks and sounds like, then the team ‘Somnography’ might just have the right thing for you. They created a way of visualizing and sonifying EEG data recorded during sleep.

Given the brevity of time all project results are astonishing and inspiring. Although the event was staged as a competition of sorts, there was an overall spirit of openness, sharing and collaboration. There was a general sense of exploration, experimentation and above all, a desire to learn more about the brain and ways of tweaking it. Beyond all the fun and experimentation that took place at Hack the Brain, the event also proved to be a highly valuable platform for creative encounters to take place between different disciplines and for the prototyping of new ideas that might be useful in areas like assistive technologies, neuroprosthetics, or gaming and other commercial products.

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The event was not only the first brain hackathon in the United Kingdom, but also the first attempt to study hackathons from a social scientific perspective. A team of trained ethnographers from the LSE accompanied the brain hackers as they went about their business. Our aim was to learn more about the way interdisciplinary teams worked together and made sense of the brain and the mind as an object of technological extension and tinkering. This should provide a new kind of insight into the avenues that capture people’s imagination when it comes to building brain-based technologies and it is also a novel way of generating societal dialogue. We believe the experiment has turned out to be successful. Hopefully, brain hackathons will spread quickly and more and more people can join this hands-on conversation about the future of neuro-enhancement.