Brain-Computer Interface Design Has Arrived! Here's What You Need To Know...

Brace yourselves. We’re about to go deep on some high-tech thing called Brain-Computer Interface. Let’s call it BCI from now on.

Ok, I’m exaggerating slightly. BCI isn’t overly complicated to understand, at least at a basic level, and it’s always wise to take a look at emerging trends that might well have a significant impact on the design industry sooner or later.

First things first, what is BCI? It’s defined as a collaboration between the brain and a device that enables signals from the brain -- without the use of the body's neuromuscular system -- to direct some external activity such as control of a cursor or a prosthetic limb.

Putting that into even simpler terms, it’s a way to control an electronic or mechanical device directly from your mind, without needing to use your physical body (like your finger or hand). 

How Important Is BCI?

It’s not difficult to immediately see the benefit that this concept holds, particularly about the field of medicine and the wider healthcare industry. Most of the recent work on BCI has revolved around the goal to improve the quality of life for people who are paralyzed or those who suffer from severe motor disabilities.

That alone is probably justification enough for its importance, but when you delve into the examples of how BCI has already helped people you see why it really could transform how we connect the brain to our technology in the future.

For example, a research team at Stanford were able to offer paralyzed patients the opportunity to use a tablet wirelessly.

Of course, we might still be quite a ways off from a BCI design that is not only useful but also practical for use in homes and public places, according to Andrew Schwartz, a professor of neurobiology at the University of Pittsburgh.

“This [BCI] is very much on the outskirts of science,” said Schwartz, an early pioneer of the technology, in an interview with the MIT Technology Review.

This is where the designers of the world come into play.

What Role Can Designers Play In The Development Of BCI?

As mentioned, the technology is still considered to be in the early stages of development. However, that doesn’t mean to say that we, and designers specifically, shouldn’t be on the lookout for how it will begin to influence technology around us.

For example, last year Facebook revealed during the F8 Conference that they were working on building a BCI that will let you type using just your brain. The project involves the use of optical imaging. This scans your brain and detects you speaking silently in your head, then converts that into text… mind blown!

Outside of stunning us with advanced technology, Facebook's new emerging technology venture proves that there's a new type of designer on the horizon.

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Enter, the BCI Designer.

They’re set to become the new UI designers, with graphic design also taking a backseat thanks to the shift towards brain-powered technology. Even Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) Designers will need to consider new fields such as neuropsychology when developing their design thinking.

BCI designers will essentially design experiences for devices that read and write directly to a user's brain. The problems these designers face might well be the same as they would have as UI or Graphic Designers, except for the fact that the spectrum of difficulty will increase.

How Will Designers' Work Change?

The rise of BCI will mean that a significant chunk of the design process will be removed from the thinking of a designer. For example, in a typical human interface design (such as a submission form) the design flow will go something like:

  1. The user formulates goal in their mind.
  2. The user carries out a motor-based movement, such as how to carry out the goal.
  3. The user inputs data, like using a keyboard.
  4. Interface processes information to complete a goal.

However, if you remove the requirement for input, the process is reduced to this:

  1. The user formulates goal in their mind (BCI processes this request).
  2. The interface processes information (form submitted with required information).

Therefore, a designer has to consider how this change will impact what they have to create. The answer might surprise most people - they’ll change very little.

Why is that, you might ask? Well, ultimately, BCI is at such an early stage that we’re unable to determine how different the design process will be. However, the end goal of BCI remains the same as HCI - to create meaningful relationships between people and the products and services that they use. In other words, a BCI designer will still have to worry about things like:

Learning and usability:

  • Is the user able to quickly learn and familiarize themselves with this interface design?
  • Can they use it effectively?
  • Is the platform responsive to their requests?
  • Goal completion and efficiency
  • Does the design interface perform well?
  • How accurate is the design?

User Satisfaction:

  • Do the users feel emotionally engaged?
  • Are they empowered to carry out tasks they wish?
  • Is the interface clear?
  • Does the user trust the interface?

Ethical Considerations:

  • Should a computer be able to interact with a user’s mind?
  • Is it ok to enable a computer to react autonomously to a user's subconscious mind?
  • What does the future hold for designers and BCI?

Just to reiterate the earlier point - in case all you designers are now terrified that you might lose your jobs overnight! - BCI design is still in the process of being honed and refined. We're not at Star Wars-level functionality yet. That said, given recent examples of how quickly technology can (and does) evolve, it’s definitely best to keep one eye on this industry.

Although almost all of the current research revolves around medical use cases, Facebook and a few others companies are venturing into brain typing, skin hearing and neural signals to control real-world actions. The next stage will be a shift towards the more mainstream products and services, but that simply cannot happen until the interface becomes practical, as noted by Professor Andrew Schwartz.

Right now, it's unlikely that BCI design will displace you for now, but considering some paths to upskill your current professional talents might not be the worst idea ever. It's only a matter of time before neural signals make their way into our daily life, influencing website design, user experience, and our overall culture. 

Will you be dabbling in emerging technologies this year? Tell us which ones below.

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