When Brink Bionics tuned into a virtual meeting with Interesting Engineering during CES 2021 to give a live demo of its latest product, we came to realize something was wrong.
The new device is a first-of-its-kind neural interface — designed to cut the reaction speed from brain to mouse-click in computer games by up to 80 milliseconds. But the frame-rate of our video call was too low to register the difference in time-lag.
It seemed like an innocent technical difficulty, but the need to switch to a higher frame-rate connection evoked the very limits Brink Bionics' latest product was created to address: reducing the electro-mechanical delay (EMD) between thinking a command, and clicking a computer mouse to tell a video game what to display on a computer screen.
Called the "Impulse" neuro-controller, the new device shortens the circuit from brain to game by tapping into the electric signals your brain sends to the muscles in your hand to click a mouse — commanding the game before your finger muscles can fully contract.
Preorders for the Impulse begin shipping in May, and sell for $139.
Impulse neuro-controller opens door to deep-tech future
Impulse uses built-in sensors run via a proprietary machine-learning algorithm to read the biosignals of muscles — effectively predicting the neurological intention to click a computer mouse.
"Essentially, we're cutting the time-lag between when you think about clicking and when your finger actually executes on that movement through muscular contraction," reads the company's Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign website.
Brink Bionics' deep-tech dive into consumer products
The Impulse is Brink Bionics' first foray into commercial applications of deep tech research — a term describing the development of technology just beyond current top-shelf products of industries.
"I consider a deep tech company to be one that is developing technology at the cutting edge of both academic and commercial technology in a field, such as space flight, neurotech, or artificial intelligence," said CEO and Co-Founder of Brink Bionics Erik Lloyd, to IE during a video interview.
As a deep tech company, Brink Bionics is "beginning to put down roots in consumer tech," to achieve a hybrid status between consumer and deep tech, Lloyd told IE. "Our mission of allowing gamers to map many commands directly to their neural pathways in a 'plug-and-play' system is still a few years away," he added.
Impulse enhances games of multiple genres
However, as companies like Brink Bionics develop and produce new deep-tech devices with consumer applications, these become milestones companies can take to the market.
"Impulse is the first of these milestones, a small sample of what we plan to do in gaming and esports," Lloyd told IE. In first-person shooter games, the device allows players to aim and shoot more rapidly. For MOBA games, players can select abilities and navigate more quickly. And for real-time strategy games, Impulse-wearers may select units and assign in-game actions faster.
Brink Bionics might build wireless Impulse controller
"Any application that involves movement of the human body" can benefit from a neural interface device, Lloyd explained. "From powered exoskeletons, medical devices, robotics, or mobile device controls — nothing is off the table for other applications."
While the power demands of the Impulse neuro-controller aren't high, it still needs wires — connecting to a typical USB port. But future versions could be on-par with the wireless capability of console game controllers.
"We are exploring the possibility of a wireless version," Lloyd told IE. "The power demand depends on the complexity of future versions of Impulse. In its current state, it has similar power requirements to a computer mouse."
Impulse's specialized approach can build strong community
Elon Musk's Neuralink at present aims to help restore "sensory and motor function, and the treatment of neurological disorders," according to a paper published on a pre-print server.
In other words, while Neuralink's ambitions lie in building "an integrated brain-machine interface platform with thousands of channels," Brink Bionics takes a different approach — instead of reaching for a fully-immersive simulation, Impulse hones-in on syncing one highly-attuned sensor to a machine-learning process. In short, it converts subtle electro-mechanical commands into actionable gameplay, (on average) 30-50 ms faster than your muscles.
"We chose to focus on one specific vertical," Lloyd explained to IE, referring to consumer applications. "The biggest reason for this is [that] in looking at all the wearable neurotech that has been released over the last 10 years — we have seen that most devices that do not pick a vertical have not broken into the larger consumer market."
"Therefore, we decided to pick a specific problem and user base," Lloyd told IE. "This way we can create the best system possible for that specific problem and group of users, giving us a strong community to grow with."
Visual screens to join a greater immersive experience
As the Internet of Senses continues to evolve, immersive forms of sensory technology will reshape how communities interact with digital media — from games and websites to high-tech surgery. "If we define screens as a means of providing visual input to a user from a device, such as a TV, phone, or computer, then 'screens' will not go away completely," Lloyd explained. "They will become a small component of the greater experience."
However, the present form of screens — as rectangle screens on laptops, TVs, and smartphones — is in for a major refit, said Lloyd. "Rather than a small rectangle we carry in our pockets, they will become even smaller visual input devices that are embedded on a contact lens [...], projecting the interface directly into your visual field."
We've seen hints of this already in products like Mojo Vision — which is creating a new bionic contact lens capable of augmenting sight for the vision-impaired.
Light-years ahead of a rectangular screen, this biotech device enhances the contrast and color for those whose vision lacks clarity.
"Beyond this, the 'screen' or visual input device could become a neural implant made of high-density cortical arrays, which consist of tens of thousands of fine wires plugged into the cortical surface of your occipital lobe (like getting a bunch of Neuralink implants plugged into the cortical surface on the back of your brain)," explained Lloyd to IE.
"Instead of sending photons to your retina on a 2D grid to get visual data to your brain, such implanted neural interfaces would send visual data to your brain by stimulating neurons directly," added Lloyd. He also suggested the possibility for wearable devices to use ultrasound arrays — stimulating neurons in the brain from the outside of one's skull. "This is extremely far off," cautioned Lloyd — but if successful, this approach could cut the need for implants out of the picture.
Brink Bionics offers 'peephole' to deep-tech immersive gaming
While we're still far away from affordable visual augmentation and wholly-immersive neural interfaces capable of mixing the integration of Neuralink with the possibilities of virtual reality — Brink Bionics' Impulse could be the first of a new generation of deep-tech gems on their way to market.
And the crucial difference lies in forgoing total immersion for a shot at augmenting one simple set of tasks faster than our electro-mechanical biology can physically manage. While we've yet to see a wide-open door to the cyberpunk future of total immersion, Brink Bionics' Impulse offers a functional peephole to that future.