You’ve read our articles on electronics that exist and some possibilities for the future. Today Diane Ravtich brings us yet another example of the future…a headset to monitor brain waves. For those who’s memory says you’ve seen this before you might want to look at our article: http://www.swweducation.org/?p=3478 or http://www.swweducation.org/?p=3149
Today she brings us a story about “BrainCo”. You can find the original article at: Daine Ravitch
They said it couldn’t or shouldn’t be done, but here it comes: a biometric headset that measures students’ level of “engagement.”
EdSurge reports that a start-up called BrainCo has invented a headset to measure brain activity. This information can be transmitted instantly to the teacher so she knows which students are engaged and which are not. Apparently, just looking at their faces and their expressions is no longer adequate. (Be sure to see the video that is included in the link.)
A few years back, Bill Gates invested in a biometric bracelet. In 2013, I posted several times about the Gates-funded galvanic response monitor. That didn’t seem to go anywhere, to my knowledge.
But the idea didn’t die. Now it appears to be arriving as a headset, not a bracelet.
If Blade Runner had a classroom scene, it might look something like the promotional video by BrainCo, Inc. Students sit at desks wearing electronic headbands that report EEG data back to a teacher’s dashboard, and that information purports to measure students’ attention levels. The video’s narrator explains: “School administrators can use big data analysis to determine when students are better able to concentrate.”
BrainCo just scored $15 million in venture funding from Chinese investors, and has welcomed a prominent Harvard education dean, who will serve as an adviser. The company says it has a working prototype and is in conversations with a Long Island school to pilot the headset.
The headband raises questions from neuroscientists and psychologists, who say little evidence exists to support what device-and-dashboard combination aims to do. It also raises legal questions, like what BrainCo will do with students’ biometric data.
BrainCo has some big ideas. The company’s CEO has said that BrainCo aims to develop a tool that can translate thoughts directly into text, or “brain typing.” To support that work, the company plans to use data collected from students using its headsets to compile “the world’s largest brainwave database.”
Theodore Zanto, a professor of neurology at the University of California at San Francisco, had two words when he first read through the company’s website: “Holy shit.”
The brains behind BrainCo
The founder and CEO of BrainCo is Bicheng Han, a PhD candidate at the Center for Brain Science at Harvard University. In 2015, his Somerville, Mass.-based startup was incubated in the Harvard Innovation Lab, and last year the company received $5.5 million in seed funding in a round led by the Boston Angel Club, with participation from Han Tan Capital and Wandai Capital, to develop BrainCo’s first product: Focus 1.
Teachers have an innate ability to know when their students are engaged, but we want to give them a superpower so they can track and quantify that over time.
Focus 1 is a headband that aims to detect and report brain activity through EEG, or electroencephalography, which measures in the brain. To advertise the device to schools, BrainCo packages the headset as Focus EDU, which essentially is the headset plus a dashboard where teachers can view all of their students’ EEG data. According to the video, a high numerical score for the EEG signal suggests that a student is paying attention; a low score is interpreted as a distracted or unfocused student.
Max Newlon, a research scientist at BrainCo, adds the company is also studying if the headset could help students and families “train their brain” to improve attention skills.
BrainCo is hardly the first company to sell so-called “brain-training”—or even EEG headsets. Similar devices include Muse, a “personal meditation” headband intended to guide relaxation based on real-time EEG readings. There’s also Neurocore Brain Performance Centers, clinics that “empower you to train your brain” also using EEG readings. (Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is among Neurocore’s investors.)
Focus EDU, by contrast, is among the first EEG products that will be marketed directly to teachers and schools.
“We are trying to be the first company to quantify this invisible metric” of student engagement, says Newlon. “Teachers have an innate ability to know when their students are engaged, but we want to give them a superpower so they can track and quantify that over time.”
The idea was enough for BrainCo to win awards including “Most Innovative” at a pitchfest during the 2017 International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) national conference.
But the company has also faced less enthusiastic reviews. At the 2016 CES conference, an electronics and consumer tech tradeshow, BrainCo’s Focus 1 device flopped in a live demo, which attempted to use human brainwaves detected by the headband to control a robotic hand. The Daily Dot called it the most “cringeworthy demonstration” at the event. “That’s a mishap that calls into question the overall function of the device,” the reporter wrote. “Was it ever actually reading the brainwaves at all?”
When BrainCo returned to CES in 2017, the company arrived with an even bigger robot—which the site WearableZone reported was a success—along with a strategic “pivot” towards education.
More recently, BrainCo has chalked up some big wins: It signed education superstar, James Ryan, Harvard’s dean of education, as an adviser. And now it’s closed a $15 million Series A funding round, bringing the the company’s total funding to nearly $20.5 million. The funding was led by Chinese investors Decent Capital and the China Electronics Corporation, which on its website describes itself as “one of the key state-owned conglomerates directly under the administration of central government, and the largest state-owned IT company in China.”
My reaction: The same as Theodore Zanto, quoted above.