Lipson’s lab is also working on evolving 3D models with the mind. EndlessForms, created by two of Lipson’s students, is a website that mimics nature’s way of creating new designs in small steps. At the start of the process users are presented with 15 three-dimensional shapes. Clicking on any two will combine them and produce fifteen new shapes based on those choices. If you wanted to make a cat, you might click on one shape with the semblance of a muzzle and another with two pointed, ear-like triangles on top. The computer would then offer up a series of new shapes that more closely resemble the cat you have in mind, and so on until the model reaches the desired shape.
To reduce the time spent clicking, the researchers came to the same conclusion as the Thinker Thing team – feeding users’ thoughts back into the computer directly could make the process quicker. So, last year, the team used Emotiv EPOC headsets to read users’ brain signals and therefore determine their reactions. But then they ran into a problem. “At some point we were thinking it was only measuring the level of sweat because we were actually trying so hard to feel happy or sad about something,” says Lipson. No matter how many times they tried, the scientists could not find a reliable signal to use from the headset.
The problem with cheap consumer headsets is that the signals they pick up are already weak. The skull dampens the small electrical impulses from the brain’s neurons and electrical signals from nearby facial muscles can overpower them. Some sceptics argue that consumer EEG devices are not really measuring thoughts at all.
Others argue that for applications that only require basic feedback such as yes or no, the readings they generate can be accurate enough. “If they are simple positive or negative emotions, it can be 100%,” says Dr Olga Sourina, head of the Cognitive Human Computer Interaction Lab at the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. “When you need to differ between more emotions like anger or fear, they can be less accurate.” Sourina has spent nine years working on improving the ability of computers to recognise emotions from EEG.
With some of the limitations of consumer EEG technology in mind, Lipson and colleagues decided to monitor thoughts via the eyeballs. Eye tracking can identify the shapes that get the most attention, and this could be used to shape design processes. The snag is that without an EEG headset it is not possible to tell whether someone is looking at a shape because they find it strange or beautiful. Even so, the team’s research so far suggests that at the end of the process participants still feel they have managed to reach the desired design. There’s some way to go, but in the future a combination of brain scanning and eye tracking may be preferred to the trusty old mouse when it comes to 3D object design.
If and when that day comes, it still won’t be a case of closing your eyes, imagining a unicorn and hearing the printer take off. But recent work by two teams of neuroscientists suggests the idea of translating whole images from the mind to the design screen may not be as improbable as it sounds. “In principle, it is not farfetched at all,” says Professor Jack Gallant, from the University of California, Berkeley. “We have already published many papers where we reconstruct photographs or movies from what people have seen.”