Over the holiday season, hundreds of people opened their gifts to find toy helicopters—that they could fly with their minds. But beyond being an entertaining toy, Puzzlebox founder Steve Castelloni says he hopes the Puzzlebox Orbit, a mind-controlled toy helicopter, will be the springboard to new scientific developments.
The Puzzlebox Orbit, a small infrared-directed helicopter within a sphere, is Puzzlebox’s first piece of hardware. Castelloni ran a Kickstarter to fund the mass production of these helicopters, which ended early last month and raised over seven times its $10,000 goal.
The San Francisco-based company has until now paired their open-source software, Puzzlebox Brainstorms, with existing toy vehicles.
Puzzlebox has been working with schools for the past two years, teaching middle-school students neuroscience with electroencephalography (EEG) headsets like NeuroSky MindWave coupled with Lego Mindstorms kits. The billions of neurons inside a human brain create the tiniest electrical charge, which is measurable by EEG, and these headsets place sensors on specific parts of the head to respond to these “brainwaves.”
Puzzlebox’s brain-computer interface (BCI) software, Puzzlebox Brainstorms, has been open source from the beginning, which anyone is encouraged to test, modify, and experiment with. BCI is a system that responds to signals from the brain, as measured by the headsets, to control a device. Likewise, Puzzlebox Orbit is open hardware and software.
Castelloni said the success of the Kickstarter was unexpected. “We were just trying to gauge their initial interest,” he said. The project raised double its goal in the first ten days, and Puzzlebox released the first educational guide to hacking your own remote-controlled helicopter (turning it into a brain-controlled helicopter) early, as a celebration.
We feel that there are so many interesting things that are possible with brain computer interface, but it really requires someone who is going to take the hard steps and that involves a lot of work and skills.
—Steve Castelloni, Puzzlebox founder
And even with the software available for free and a comprehensive guide to build your own brain-controlled vehicle, the project still went on to raise over $50,000 more. “The response has been great, really encouraging, really overwhelming.”
It’s more than just a toy, it’s a social experiment, Castelloni says.
“We really want to develop a community here,” said Castelloni. For the first few months after the Puzzlebox Orbits have gotten into the hands of users, he anticipates—or is hoping—to receive a lot of biofeedback, general responses, and new functions for the software and hardware Puzzlebox has released.
The Orbit has a mobile version, where users can use their mobile devices to connect with a NeuroSky MindWave EEG headset via Bluetooth, to control the helicopter.
The toy helicopter moves and flies based on infrared signals, which can be carried by the audio port of a mobile device like an iPhone, or produced by the accompanying Pyramid.
The second option comes with a Puzzlebox Pyramid, a self-contained control unit for the Orbit using Arduino micro-controllers (another popular open-source device). A circle of 12 LED lights on the Pyramid indicates levels of concentration, mental relaxation, and EEG signal quality.
Castelloni says the goal is to encourage anyone with an interest in programming to be able to customize the educational toy.
Puzzlebox has done extensive work with middle schools, and its website says the basic principles of how the toy works should be understandable by a motivated 10-year-old and accessible by any high school student.
“We feel that there are so many interesting things that are possible with brain computer interface, but it really requires someone who is going to take the hard steps and that involves a lot of work and skills,” Castelloni said.
In the last few years, consumer-grade EEG devices have become more common and accessible, but Castelloni said that no one has made devices with sensors that correspond to the sensorimotor cortex yet.
“By involving the public, as a group of hundreds or thousands,” this goal is very possible, Castelloni said, whereas with closed groups of just members of small companies, it could take ages because of limited resources. The Pyramid serves a second role, and Puzzlebox plans to use circuits in the base to create new electronic equipment.
The experiment hasn’t ended with the financially successful mass-manufacturing endeavor based on something free, according to Castelloni.
“Someone else will take the technology, and maybe one day we’ll wake up and they’re producing their own company off of that, which we encourage as long as they abide by open source. The whole goal is that someone else can take it and produce it,” Castelloni said. “That would be a success.”
Neuroscience for Kids
“Education was my very first goal,” Castelloni said.
Since 2010, Puzzlebox has been collaborating with schools to introduce middle school students to BCI and neuroscience by designing their own LEGO Mindstorms vehicles and practicing focusing and relaxing their minds to control them.
“I personally worked at a private school straight out of college, using Lego Mindstorm kits in college. We’d used the Lego kits for AI classes, and tying it to brain-computer interface just seemed like such a natural fit,” Castelloni said.
But the LEGO Mindstorms kits are expensive, at almost $300 per kit, which becomes a barrier to entry for schools in lower income areas.
Hao Zhang, the engineer for the project, was the one to find a manufacturer for the toy helicopters, which can be produced at a relatively low cost. Castelloni said this will also help get the educational toys “to the kids who probably need them the most.”
The use of a helicopter first came up when Puzzlebox was hired to do a TV spot, and “this physical flying object is just naturally fun,” Castelloni said. “It’s been an excellent response every time. So the helicopter seemed a natural fit.”
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