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Many Americans only learned about ALS this summer due to the popularity of the Ice Bucket Challenge. However, this neuromuscular degenerative disorder (also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease) has been afflicting people for years. In 2009, the Not Impossible Lab partnered with the Graffiti Research Lab, Free Art+ Technology, Open Frameworks, and The Ebeling Group to create the EyeWriter for Tempt, a graffiti artist whose ALS robbed him of his body, voice, and art. The EyeWriter used low-cost eye-tracking glasses and open-source software to allow Tempt to control a virtual paint brush with his eyes. Tempt could blink to turn it on, move his eyes to draw, and blink again to turn it off. This invention allowed him to draw for the first time in five years.
Five years later, Tempt’s ALS has progressed to the point where he has lost the ability to fast blink – the control that allowed him to turn the Eyewriter on and off. Not Impossible Labs rose to the challenge again bringing together a team of engineers, researchers, and a partnership with Open BCI to tackle the problem. The result was the Brainwriter, a device that incorporates EEG to allow Tempt to use his brain for better control.
The small, five-person team consisting of Javed Ganjee, Elliot Kotek, Daniel Goodwin, David Putrino, and Sam Bergen reenvisioned EEG from the ground up. Traditional EEG devices for research use conductive gel, a skull cap with sensors, an amplifier, and proprietary software. A basic set up can cost thousands of dollars. The Brainwriter uses a headset with customizable sensor placement and open source software for a total cost of about $400. At a fraction of the cost, it has essentially the same tracking capabilities. By keeping the project open source, Not Impossible Labs hopes others will build off their creation to develop more solutions for people with neuromuscular degenerative disorders.
A prototype for the Brainwriter was shown over the summer at the Barbican’s Digital Revolution exhibit in London along side products like Google Glass and Oculus Rift. Despite ALS taking away Tempt’s basic control of his body, he is still able to express himself through Not Impossible Lab’s creation.