The BACKHOME project has turned home-based usage of brain computer interfaces (BCIs) from a dream to a reality in a matter of three years. Its compact BCI system, along with a wireless biosignal acquisition system and other telemonitoring technologies, are already on the market.
For people affected by severe disabilities, the idea of a cure remains far-fetched in spite of researchers’ continuous efforts. What is more tangible, however, is a brain-computer interface that would allow them to recover part of their independence. This technology has evolved considerably over the years: new application prototypes for the likes of communication, movement control, environmental control, locomotion or neuro-rehabilitation have been demonstrated and provide patients with a concrete hope of better days. But so far these prototypes have been confined to labs and closely-monitored environments.
‘Home usage had been demonstrated, though only with ongoing expert supervision,’ notes Felip Miralles, director of the eHealth R&D Unit at Eurecat, a Catalonian technology centre which results from the merger of Ascamm, Cetemmsa, Barcelona Digital, Barcelona Media and CTM in May 2015. ‘A significant advance in BCI research and its implementation as a feasible assistive technology (AT) is therefore the migration of BCIs into people’s homes to provide new options for communication and control that increase independence and reduce social exclusion.’
Felip Miralles knows very well the ins and outs of this situation. For the past three years he has been in charge of BACKHOME, a project which aimed to enable the migration of BCI technology from the lab to the home and therefore bring it to mainstream markets. Now completed, the project is responsible for five key innovations: an architecture able to meet the requirements of a multi-functional BCI with remote home support; a novel BCI equipment setting a new standard of lightness, autonomy, comfort and reliability; easy-to-use services tailored to people’s needs with one-click command and adaptive usage; a telemonitoring and home support system; and a web-based application for therapists offering various remote services.
User- and market-centred
These technologies were all tested thoroughly by means of a User Centered Design (UCD) approach, where therapists and caregivers, but also users and their families, were able to provide feedback. ‘We adopted this approach at each phase of the system definition and implementation in order to have a solution that reflects users’ requirements, needs and preferences,’ Eloisa Vargiu, technical coordinator of the project, explains. The final system was evaluated by 20 participants through an experimental protocol at the University of Würzburg (both with gel-based and dry electrodes), while five other participants completed the same test on three occasions at the Cedar Foundation.
User feedback showed that the system was stable and satisfied all requirements. ‘Caregivers assessing the usability of the hardware and software was positive. They felt confident that they could integrate the set-up into their daily routine,’ Miralles explains. Extended testing was undertaken with five participants with acquired brain injury using the gel based system, and two end users tested the system during independent home use over the course of six weeks. The latter opportunity enabled caregivers to set up hardware and software, while end users could use the system independently and were asked to fulfil three predefined tasks per week.
Vargiu says this user-centric approach was at the heart of the project’s success. ‘The home-based evaluation provided useful lessons for technical developers indicating aspects that are most important such as the need to be able to use the system without caregiver support, the importance of the infrastructure in the living environment and the importance of advancing the algorithms used to prevent undesired selections. During long-term independent home use, two study participants diagnosed with ALS evaluated the Brain Painting application, which allows them to express themselves artistically by creating paintings on a virtual canvas. Both expressed high satisfaction with the application and indicated that the BCI improved their quality of life.’
Such long-term interaction with end users also helped pave the way for simpler and easier lab to market transition: although the project was completed in June, several of the main products arising from BACKHOME are already available on the market.
‘The g.Nautilus, a novel wireless biosignal acquisition system, and the intendiX, a complete and compact BCI system for patients’ everyday lives, are available for end users. Another side product, the eKauri platform, is already in production. Its sensor-based telemonitoring and home support system provides advanced tele-assistance services, chronic care management and social participation targeting the elderly, those with chronic illness and people living with a disability not necessarily using BCI as the end-user interface,’ Miralles notes. A commercial telehealth product called HomePod, commercialized by British company Medvivo, was also reshaped into a new product to remotely monitor and assist brain stroke patients. This new system, called StrokePod, also integrates BACKHOME’s sensor-based telemonitoring system.
All in all, BACKHOME is expected to have a strong impact on Europe’s competitive edge in the field. Its technology will also make a real difference in patients, caregivers, and medical professionals’ daily routine.