Neurotech for intuitive human-machine interactions and faster gaming
Waterloo’s Engineering Bionics Lab is a hub of innovation for interfaces and technologies that augment human capabilities
Waterloo’s Engineering Bionics Lab is a hub of innovation for interfaces and technologies that augment human capabilitiesBy Melanie Scott University Relations
Ning Jiang has an early memory of visiting the hospital where his parents worked in China and seeing someone walking with the aid of a prosthetic. This experience and others he had as the son of two physicians, led Jiang to begin thinking how technology could be used for good. A professor in the Department of Systems Design Engineering, Jiang is fascinated with devices and technology that can enhance human health and the way people experience the world around them.
Jiang is also the founder and director of the Waterloo Engineering Bionics Lab, where new interfaces and technologies that augment human capabilities are designed and tested.
“My goal is to develop technologies that are easier to use and more accessible, technologies that will allow people to better interact with the external world, especially when there is a medical need but also for productivity and entertainment purposes.”
Operating since 2015, research at the Waterloo Engineering Bionics Lab has focused mainly on building assistive and rehabilitation devices for persons with disabilities, such as upper-limb prosthetics or brain-controlled devices that aid stroke victims’ recovery. Research is also being done in other areas, such as health monitoring, a field of study in which devices provide feedback and data on human cardiac and cognitive stress levels and other measurements.
The bionics lab researches non-invasive neuro-signals that can enhance the performance of human-machine interactions. During these interactions, a brain-computer interface (BCI) extracts signals from the brain and immediately communicates to the technology so that it behaves exactly as the user intended. For example, a stroke patient or someone with spinal cord injuries may not be able to move their hands or legs. But the interface translates signals from the patient’s brain into a machine such as an exoskeleton, allowing the patient’s hands or legs to move.
Another example is patients with amputations. Using EMG signals from contracting muscles, the technology decodes the patient’s intention, such as moving a finger, and transmits the results to the prosthetic hand, which then moves exactly as the patient intended. The advantage of using these types of signals is that the technology can easily interpret human intentions. Prosthetics of this type are smoother and more intuitive for patients than typical prosthetics, which only use one set of muscles and require the patient to learn to control those muscles independently.
The development of this neurotechnology led to the founding of the first company out of the Engineering Bionics Lab in 2018. Brink Bionics was founded by Ning Jiang, along with co-researchers Jiayuan He and Erik Lloyd (MASc ’19). It began as a bionic arm company, winning the Velocity Fund Pitch Competition, and has leveraged entrepreneurial support offered by the Velocity incubator. The company has since pivoted to use neurotechnology for gaming, filling a gap in the market left by conventional gaming controllers. Their commercial product, the Impulse Neurocontroller, allows for faster reaction time. The device, which is worn like a glove, uses sensors to interpret the movement intentions of the player before they move, allowing for reaction time that is up to 80 milliseconds faster than mouse-click actions. This increased reaction time provides significant advantages for gamers.
"During my time in the Engineering Bionics Lab, I was encouraged to pursue neurotechnology research that had the potential to impact lives beyond the conventional goals of scientific publications,” says Lloyd, CEO of Brink Bionics.
“Because of this entrepreneurial attitude, as well as the engineering resources and support made available by the University of Waterloo, we founded Brink Bionics. To date, we have raised close to $500,000 in funding from pitch competitions and venture capital, and launched our first neurotechnology product. We are now in another VC fundraising round to build out the next version of our gaming gear for neuro-enhancement.
“The company continues to be a means for our team to explore big ideas, as we are developing both implanted and wearable neural interface technologies that will augment the way we interface with devices in every aspect of our lives."
Jiang says filling medical and health-care needs is still the main direction for the Waterloo Engineering Bionics Lab, which partners with Grand River Hospital, McMaster University and the University of Toronto to conduct trials with patients.
Jiang remembers watching Robocop when he was a kid, a science fiction movie that left questions in his mind about the way technology can be used as a force for good or evil. He believes we will see a shift in the next few years in which bionics becomes a regular part of our lives and people increasingly incorporate biotechnologies into their bodies to enhance capabilities.
“Right now, things like electronic implants are more in the fringe or subculture of society,” he says. But humans will be integrating more technology and bio-machinery to enhance their functions in the near future. There is a lot of research happening in these areas and advances are being made at a fast pace.”
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