Neurable Uses Thoughts to Control 3D Objects. Are Video Games Next?

When Ramses Eduardo Alcaide-Aguirre was eight years old, his uncle was involved in a devastating car accident and lost the use of his legs. Seeing his uncle struggle with what were once mundane tasks had a big impact on young Alcaide.

“It made me want to help people with disabilities,” he recalled.

That desire to be of service continues to inform Alcaide’s work with Neurable, a University of Michigan spinout startup that has created a non-invasive brain-computer interface enabling real-time control of physical objects through software. In Neurable, which he co-founded with Xiaoya Ma, Alcaide envisions a company that enhances virtual reality and augmented reality technologies to improve gaming for everyone—and ultimately revolutionizes the way people with severe disabilities communicate.

Neurable has been heavily influenced by the work of Jane Huggins. Huggins, a faculty member in physical medicine, rehabilitation, and biomedical engineering who serves as Neurable’s scientific advisor, leads U-M’s Direct Brain Interface project (DBI), which studies the way humans and computers interact. Alcaide, a doctoral student in engineering at U-M, was recruited by DBI to create the algorithms and software that led to the company’s breakthrough.

Neurable’s computer-brain interface can detect and interpret subconscious processing, rapidly detecting a person’s intentions.This technology can help doctors measure the cognitive function of severely disabled people, and it can also help gamers feel like they’re using “The Force” to control the action.

The innovations fueling Neurable were developed at the DBI lab by Huggins and her team starting in 1994. In particular, Neurable harnesses a brain signal called P300, which is produced when a person sees something that’s “relatively rare but important,” Huggins said. Though she never doubted the clinical value of her research, the challenge for many years was figuring out a way to commercialize the technology.

Although there’s a great deal of need, there’s not necessarily a great deal of money [to be made],” Huggins said. “The people who need this have severe physical impairments that usually interfere with their ability to earn a living.”

More than anything, Huggins said, she wants to see her years of research translated into “actual products that people can benefit from.” She imagines that one day, doctors could use Neurable’s tools to evaluate stroke patients. “There haven’t been any highly successful brain interface products yet because the technology is new and still kind of touchy,” she said. “There’s still so much we don’t understand about the brain.”

Alcaide also hopes Neurable will one day play a role in helping severely disabled people communicate. However, the company plans to first harness its algorithms to bolster video games and is working with U-M’s office of tech transfer to find its market niche. According to research, the potential annual market for brain-computer interface technologies will be worth $6 billion by 2020. Neurable’s initial product is a software development kit that allows programmers to create applications capable of being controlled in real-time by a person’s brain activity.

Alcaide was in Las Vegas in January for CES, where he presided over a booth demonstrating Neurable’s technology. While there, he met with gaming companies and gauged their reaction to what Neurable has to offer. He said it was a thrilling experience.

“People were pretty much blown away,” he said. “Nothing is on paper yet, but a lot of companies have expressed interest in partnering with us, and we’ve had a lot of interest from potential investors.”

As he works to get the word out about Neurable, Alcaide will participate in the iCorps program, which helps researcher-entrepreneurs identify potential customers and take their ideas to market. Last week, Neurable was a finalist in U-M’s annual Michigan Business Challenge competition, and the company was also named the MVP of the TechArb incubator’s most recent graduating class. Over the weekend, Neurable made a splash by controlling a virtual 3D model of Mickey Mouse using only brainpower as part of a massive U-M hackathon. To say Alcaide has a lot of irons in the fire is a bit of an understatement.

“We want to expand into gaming because it’s the quickest way to get to market,” he added. “But the long-term play is to license our products to assistive technology companies. We still want to help people.”

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