Modified VR technology can measure brain activity

7th August 2023
Paige West

Scientists have adapted a commercially available virtual reality headset, enabling it to gauge brain activity and investigate responses to cues, stressors, and external stimuli.

At The University of Texas at Austin, a group of researchers has developed a non-invasive electroencephalogram (EEG) sensor. This sensor has been integrated into a Meta VR headset, designed for comfortable extended wear. This EEG sensor captures the brain's electrical activity while users engage in immersive virtual reality experiences.

The applications for this device are diverse. It could aid individuals dealing with anxiety, assess the focus and cognitive strain of pilots using flight simulators, and even offer humans the opportunity to perceive the world from a robot's perspective.

“Virtual reality is so much more immersive than just doing something on a big screen,” said Nanshu Lu, a professor in the Cockrell School of Engineering’s Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics who led the research. “It gives the user a more realistic experience, and our technology enables us to get better measurements of how the brain is reacting to that environment.”

The integration of VR and EEG sensors has already ventured into the realm of commercialisation. Nevertheless, the current available devices come with a high cost. The researchers argue that their electrodes offer enhanced comfort to users, thereby prolonging potential usage times and unlocking new possibilities for various applications.

Presently, the top-performing EEG devices typically involve caps adorned with electrodes. However, this design doesn't seamlessly align with VR headsets. Additionally, singular electrodes encounter difficulty in obtaining robust readings due to hindrances posed by our hair, which obstructs direct contact with the scalp. The prevailing choice of electrodes is firm and styled like combs, necessitating insertion through the hair to establish a connection with the skin. Unfortunately, this method tends to create discomfort for the user.

“All of these mainstream options have significant flaws that we tried to overcome with our system,” said Hongbian Li, a research associate in Lu’s lab.

In pursuit of this initiative, the research team devised a pliable electrode composed of soft, conductive materials, which effectively surmounts the aforementioned challenges. Spearheaded by Li, this endeavour resulted in the adaptation of the headset. The enhancements include electrode placement along the upper strap and the forehead pad, the integration of a supple circuit hosting conductive traces reminiscent of Lu's electronic tattoos, and the incorporation of an EEG recording apparatus affixed to the headset's rear section.

This technological advancement will intersect with another significant research undertaking at UT Austin – a novel robot delivery network poised to double as the most extensive exploration yet into human-robot interactions.

Lu is involved in this endeavour, and the VR headsets will find utility among individuals engaged in either accompanying robots during travel or partaking in a distant ‘observatory’ setting. Participants will have the capability to observe proceedings from the robot's vantage point, facilitated by these headsets. Moreover, the technology will concurrently gauge the cognitive strain borne by these observers during extended periods of engagement.

“If you can see through the eyes of the robot, it paints a clearer picture of how people are reacting to it and lets operators monitor their safety in case of potential accidents,” said Luis Sentis, a professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics who is co-leading the robot delivery project and is a co-author on the VR EEG paper.

To assess the practicality of the VR EEG headset, the researchers devised a gaming scenario. Collaborating with José del R. Millán, a faculty member in the Chandra Family Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the Dell Medical School, and a specialist in brain-machine interfaces, they formulated a driving simulation. In this simulation, users are required to press a button in response to directional cues, testing their responsiveness to turn commands.

The EEG sensor records the brain activity of users as they make driving-related choices. In this context, it illustrates the level of attentiveness exhibited by the participants.

The researchers have filed preliminary patent paperwork for the EEG, and they’re open to partner with VR companies to create a built-in version of the technology. 

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