Bio-Sensing: Hacking the doors of perception

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Bio-Sensing: Hacking the doors of perception


Sean M. Montgomery and Ira Laefsky
As we engage with the world, sense our environment, make decisions, and interact with the people and objects around us; our bodies are continuously responding with neural impulses, hormone release, changes in heart rate, breathing, sweating, etc. Although much of this biological activity is hidden from our conscious awareness, by monitoring these bio-signals we can become more aware of and modulate our physical, emotional, and intellectual responses to the people, things, and events (both pleasant and unpleasant) with which we spend our lives. We can also use these bio-signals to interact more naturally with objects and digital systems, and, to the extent we choose, we can share them to create new forms of communication and monitor the communications of others.
Since ancient times, individuals and their physicians have observed the relationship between physiological responses and their behavior, emotions and mental events. It does not require advanced instrumentation to notice a quickening of pulse, or an increase in sweating. But, in the late 19th Century, scientists began to develop equipment to measure and record electrical events occurring in our bodies’ tissues. In the 1870s experiments utilized the ancestors of todays’ electroencephalogram (EEG; electrical activity generated by neurons firing in the brain) and electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG; electrical impulses generated by the contraction of heart muscles) were performed by Richard Caton and Alex Muirhead respectively. Between 1888 and 1890 changes in the electrical resistance of human skin were first observed by Charles Féré and Ivan Tarchov using Galvanometer measurements.
Until recently, measurement of biological signals has been largely confined to doctor’s offices and research laboratories, but in the last decade or so, the wide availability of cheap electronics and microprocessors has brought an explosion of biosensors onto the market. Today you can get off-the-shelf watches that measure your EKG (e.g. Polar, Garmin), alarm clocks that monitor your EEG and sleep patterns to wake you up on the optimal phase of sleep (e.g. Zeo, SleepTracker), and even video games that read your brainwaves to control your characters in a manner that verges on telekinesis (e.g. NeuroSky, Emotiv). As we look into the not-so-distant future, the possibilities seem virtually endless and much more like science-fiction than near reality. Research groups have begun to identify the combinations of EKG, GSR and EEG that accompany specific emotional reactions (happiness, sadness, anger, etc.) and these “honest signals” (book by Alex (Sandy) Pentland) are being used in focus groups to understand the true impact of advertising campaigns. Reading neural signals has begun to be useful for overcoming physical and even some mental disabilities and in the future these technologies will not only be used to overcome disability but to enhance ability and “augment reality.” This augmented reality (AR) could include extra limbs under mental control through human computer interface (HCI), monitoring the emotions of yourself or others to enhance our expression and communication, and possibly even resemble telepathy. The social utility of this AR will likely multiply as the signals become networked and allow rich augmented interaction with any entity around the world. Of course, this bright future will raise many important and difficult questions, such as who has access to this gold mine of biological data and for whose ends might it be exploited. Will a clause in a 30 page privacy agreement permit Big Brother (1984 citation) direct access to your inner-most thoughts and feelings?
Do-It-Yourself-ers and hackers can play an important role, both in developing radical new applications for bio-signals and in maintaining a balance between utility and privacy as we enter into this “Brave New World” (citation). With the development of modern electronics and microprocessor-based systems such as Arduino, the tools to measure such phenomena as EEG, heart rate, blood pressure, sleep cycles, skin resistance and even facial expressions are now inexpensively available to the hobbyist for personal experimentation. A list of commercially available sensors can be found in Table 1, and a list of devices that might be hacked for alternative uses can be found in Table 2. Together, these sensors offer a rich array of biological signals with which the hobbyist can experiment. Rather than leave the functionality of bio-signals up to a handful of companies, many millions of DIYers building on each other’s efforts can delve into combinatorial well of possible uses and true potential for bio-signals. The projects found in this article can serve as a starting point for readers to begin measuring biological signals.
In addition to revealing the applications of bio-signals, hackers may well prove critical to finding solutions and maintaining a balance with privacy concerns. By actually reading those nasty privacy agreements and publishing egregious offenders and by creating open-source code that can be audited by independent observers, it’s possible for hackers to play an important in preventing abuses in this exciting arena.

Table 1: Commercially available bio-sensors

  1. Neurosky Mindset EEG Headgear
    Wireless EEG headset, $200, 1 channel, SDK available
    As is illustrated in this article this headgear permits easy interface to computers and the Arduino and other Microcontrollers

  2. Emotiv EPOC EEG Headgear
    Wireless EEG headset, $500-750, 14 channel, SDK features depend on price

  3. OCZ Neural Impulse Actuator
    Wired EEG headset, $150, 2 channel (+ref), no API/SDK

  4. OpenEEG circuity
    Open source hardware EEG (see precautions)
    DIY information:

  5. Biocontrol Systems
    EEG/EKG systems, ~$500, software plugin for Max/MSP

  6. Thought Technology Ltd.
    High-end EEG, EKG systems

  7. Intantech Biopotential Amplifier IC
    Multiplexed EEG amplifier, 16 channels, $360

  8. Biopac Systems Goleta California
    Many products from EEG/EKG electrodes to eye trackers

  9. Gaze Group
    Open source eye tracking software
    Significant progress has recently been made in tracking eye-movements. In the past year the cost of tracking eye-movement using corneal reflection has dropped from ~$30,000 to ~$5,000 and Gaze Group intends to bring that price tag into the hundreds of dollars range in the near future.

  10. Seeing Machines Facelab Eye Tracker
    Commercial and free, non-commercial licenses available

  11. Opengazer
    Open source code for eye tracking with a webcam

  12. Tobii Eye Tracking Equipment
    High-end eye tracking equipment

  13. Heart Rate Monitor Interfaces

DIY information:

  1. Accelerometers for measuring body motion
    DIY information:

  2. Wiitilt
    Wireless Accelerometer and gyro, $200

  3. Stretch sensor for measuring respiration
    DIY information:

  4. Pulse oximeter finger probes
    DIY information:

  5. Flex sensors

  6. Pressure sensors

  7. Temperature sensor

  8. Online data logging and analysis tools
    Pachube -
    Noldus Observer -
    Many, many others

Table 2: Hackable bio-sensing toys and products

  1. Mattel Mindflex Game
    Hacking info:
    Measures concentration and relaxation and EEG power in selected bands from brain activity (EEG)

  2. Uncle Milton Force Trainer
    Measures concentration and relaxation from brain activity (EEG)

  3. EyeWriter
    DIY $50 eye-tracking hardware and open-source software

  4. Zeo Personal Sleep Coach
    EEG-based sleep monitor
    Hacking info:

  5. Wakemate Actigraphy
    Accelerometer-based sleep analysis

  6. Fitbit
    Accelerometer-based activity/calorie monitor

  7. BodyMedia Fit
    Accelerometer and temperature based activity/calorie monitor

  8. Bodybugg Armband Sensor
    Measures GSR/Heat Flux/Accerometer/Skin Temperature

  9. Pulse Oximeters
    Lots of commercially available pulseox sensors that may be hackable

  10. Truth Wristband wearable GSR meter
    Displays GSRs on RGB LEDs
    DIY information:

  11. Kinect for Xbox
    Measures position of the body in 3D space and has been hacked for use with PCs/Macs/Linux

Many links on Kevin Kelly's Quantified Self site may also be of interest.
Text Box:

Reasonable Precautions With Biosensors (or Don’t Always Imitate Isaac Newton):
I tooke a bodkine [an Ivory Needle-IL] gh & put it betwixt my eye & [the] bone as

neare to [the] backside of my eye as I could: & pressing my eye

[with the] end of it (soe as to make [the] curvature a, bcdef in

my eye) there appeared severall white darke & coloured circles

r, s, t, &c.

Notebook of Isaac Newton

Your body and that of your fellow experimenters is an irreplaceable asset, so exercise reasonable care when working with biosensors.

Some guidelines for these experiments include:

  1. Unless you are an expert, never use an A.C. (wall outlet) as a power source and electrically isolate electrodes and parts in contact with the body from any high-voltage power source. Use batteries and where possible and an unplugged laptop computer (rather than a desktop) for measurements directly connected to the body.

  2. Don’t break or penetrate the skin when applying biosensors. Also avoid placing objects into your body (eyes, ears, mouth, and other internal locations).

  3. Sterilize electrodes before use and avoid abrading the skin to avoid infection.

  4. Follow manufacturer’s directions and exercise reasonable common sense when handling and placing biosensors. Specialized instructions and effective infection control procedures can be found on medical electronics and manufacturer’s sites for a particular type of experimental procedure (EEG, EMG, etc.).

With reasonable care these experiments can inform and educate us about our own bodies’ and physical and emotional states.

Project 1: Divulging secrets - How to make a Truth Meter

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