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Students in computer science, art collaborate on brainwave project

May 14, 2014 - By Kim Delker

Some people are said to wear their emotions on their sleeves, but how about displayed on a projector?

Computer science students typically don’t deal with humans’ emotional states, focusing instead on numbers and code. But for students in lecturer Joel Castellanos’ Computer Science 351 course, emotions and numbers are combining into a unique final project.

Instead of taking a final on a piece of paper or on a computer, their programming prowess will be evaluated with the help of UNM’s ARTS Lab and EEG headsets that measure brainwaves.

The project involves a headset with 14 electrodes that make contact with the scalp.
The high-resolution, multi-channel portable EEG systems from a company called Emotiv use sensors “to tune into electrical signals produced by the brain to detect user thoughts, feelings, and expressions,” according to their website. The headset connects wirelessly to a PC or Mac, allowing researchers to easily visualize all the activity that is happening in your brain.

CS 351, Design of Large Programs, is all about designing big software — as in too large to be handled by one person. Castellanos has taken this central facet of the course — teamwork— and turned it into a nontraditional final project for his students.

“The only requirement is they design their own software using this headgear,” he said. “The ultimate goal is for them to learn how to work in a team and work on a project that is too big for them individually.”

The computer science students will focus on how to program the data collected through the headsets and be sure it displays on the large projection screen at the ARTS Lab in a way that provides the viewers the best sensory experience. Castellanos says this project involves large amounts of data, so the challenge for students is to sort the very “noisy” data and process it in a way that makes sense.

Helping the computer science students in this endeavor is Jim Cavanagh, neuroscientist and assistant professor in UNM’s psychology department and electronic arts senior Chris Clavio, who has developed an interest in visualization software. He has been working with Castellanos and his students to build software that takes the data the headset collects and translates it into a visual landscape that can be projected on the screen.

Although the EEG technology is not new, what is unique about this project is that students will be measuring several types of brainwave data at once and doing it visually, basically making overlays that read the waves in real time on the screen. Each of the 12 electrodes read different regions of the brain, so instead of seeing a “top down,” two-dimensional view of the brain’s activity, it displays a three-dimensional view on the screen in real time.

For instance, if a person is angry, the EEG headset can pick that up by showing which part of the brain is lit up. Likewise, if a person is happy, listening to music, in a stressful situation, or simply in deep thought, that shows up as well.

When this data is translated into the visual space at the ARTS Lab, something almost magical happens.

"It’s like an exploded view of your cranium," Clavio said. “It makes you feel like you’re on the inside of your own brain, and that lets you draw connections."

Ultimately, this type of technology could be used to improve the lives of those with learning disabilities or traumatic brain injuries, as it allows a clear and instant view of how the brain processes a wide variety of information. It may also be able to help those who may be addicted to stressful situations, such as those in abusive relationships.

"This technology may be able to help us ‘train’ our brains into new patterns of thinking and interacting," Clavio said.

Students will be presenting their final projects May 13 from 10 a.m. to noon at the ARTS Lab, 1601 Central Ave. NE,