Brain-Machine Interface: From Elon Musk’s Neuralink to Valve’s Gaming Platform and Kernel’s fNIRS

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1Q 2021 | IN-6097

Brain-Machine Interface (BMI) technology is starting to gain momentum. Although it is currently primarily powered by academia and extensive lab research, it is expected to successfully make the transition from healthcare to consumer markets within the next 4 years.

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BMI Is Gaining Momentum


The use of Brain-Machine Interface (BMI), also referred to as Brain-Computer Interface (BCI), is a promising technological application that is currently attracting increased attention and undergoing multiple experimental designs and proof of concepts. Its key objective is remarkably captivating: allow humans to control any piece of technology or digital application using solely their mental faculties, ushering in the next step in human-machine interaction in the connected era. BMI is currently strongly powered by academia, with companies trying to secure additional investments and steadily attempting to make a few steps into the spotlight. The main objective for companies interested in BMI at this point is to avoid the “gimmick” tag and provide evidence of something functional, reliable, and marketable. BMI is expected to make the transition to consumer markets within the next 5 years.

Not a Completely Novel Technology but Quite a Novel Approach


Is this a novel technology? Does it have a higher chance of failure to enter the larger consumer market? As mentioned in the ABI Research report Transformative Horizons: Biometrics in the IoT, BMI is touted as a novel technology, but it actually has rather deep roots in medical science. Modified usage of Electroencephalogram (EEG) scans and functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) has long been applied to obtain ephemeral, long-standing, and critical information for physiological, cognitive, and emotional faculties. This data is highly valuable and unobtainable by almost any other means. Cognitive Neural Prosthetics (CNP) is also used in healthcare prosthetics and robotics, translating cognitive states of subjects into motor execution.

While most of the above technologies are currently almost exclusively used to assist with prognosis, people with disabilities, and healthcare issues, some modified principle can be applied for other applications. There might be a chance that BMI fails to market, much like VR technologies, which have been discussed for decades and overhyped over different periods of time. However, there is a considerable wealth of experimental information after years of extensive testing in the medical sciences waiting to make the jump from healthcare to the larger consumer environment, thus reducing the chance of a “bubble burst.”

Elon Musk's AI Symbiosis, BMI-Powered Gaming in Steam, or Health Monitoring? How About All?


“Brain biometrics” and tech considerations – what should you tackle during the first iteration? BMI was also dubbed (perhaps somewhat more loosely) as “brain biometrics.” However, currently this refers to the act of brain scanning rather than actual security purposes. Academic papers do provide evidence of advanced functionality enabled by BMI, and ABI Research posits that in theory it would be plausible to use different measurements for “brain authentication.” It is expected that this authentication functionality will mostly likely appear in later iterations of the technology and only after it has established itself in the consumer market with a less security-focused value proposition. Certain other aspects like user interface, navigation and interaction, successful hardware adaptation for wearables and headsets, user safety, data protection, third-party access control, regulation (if any), and technology migration (from the highly specialized environments making use of BMI to consumer markets) are the first hurdles to deal with prior to making use of brain interface as a biometric authentication technology.

A few key companies – who is doing BMI right now? Noteworthy vendors include established billion-dollar players and entertainment market leaders in their respective fields like Valve, which owns the Steam gaming platform; certain promising new startups like Neurable, Emotiv, Kernel, Bitbrain, NeuroSky, NeuroPro, MyndPlay, and OpenBCI (which actually partnered with Valve); and trailblazing market entrants backed by advanced AI like Elon Musk’s own Neuralink. BMI applications are now entering further down the technological zeitgeist with organizations honing their skills trying to attract additional investment rounds and plant a flag in this emerging market within the consumer ecosystem.

Value proposition – do they have it? Other than the overuse of the word “neuro” in company names, many promising startups have another thing in common: a wide spectrum of innovative solutions, albeit with rather non-conventional value propositions. Some of them can be a bit more straightforward:

  • Valve expects BMI to be integrated into its gaming Steam platform, quite possibly as a means of navigation and user experience but also as a key technology in its VR headset designed alongside HTC (HTC Vive). For large platform players like Valve, BMI can certainly add to the user experience even if it does not provide a completely futuristic perspective on gaming (at least during this first iteration).
  • Smaller startups Emotiv and MyndPlay are applying the technology in various wearables from hats to earbuds and headsets in a purely commercial manner that is easier to evaluate since it all comes down to functionality.
  • Higher-value startups like Kernel that managed to secure more than US$100 million in investments have chosen the neuroscience path and plan to converge multiple technologies like functional Near-Infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS) to stimulate different parts of the brain and not only tackle the advances of mental diseases like Parkinson’s but also extend human cognitive capabilities, focus, and attention. As the technology evolves, this direct healthcare application with other value-added services can be a clear win for Kernel.
  • Last but certainly not least, there is Neuralink. Its initial key objective is to assist people suffering from severe spinal cord injuries and allow them to connect and operate digital systems, computers, and electronic devices using their brain. In a true non-conforming manner, without bridging economics with science evolution, Elon Musk describes Neuralink’s long-term objectives:
    • To work on human-machine symbiosis
    • Provide humanity the much-needed edge to adapt to its constantly increasing dependency on AI technologies
    • Increase human brain power by merging it with the digital world (the first step in the first iteration can be achieved through brain integration to smartphone technologies)

Incoming market disruption? Quantifying the financial potential of a brain interface technology in the consumer market is rather challenging since it may all come down to the sum of technical details. In short, if the end product is more or less an “expensive gimmick,” then investment rounds will take a significant blow. On the other hand, if it does manage to find its way in gaming, entertainment, smart home, or even telemedicine applications, then it will most likely not only transform but also disrupt said markets.