Researchers at The University of Texas at Austin have taken a significant step forward in understanding how our brains react to external stimuli by modifying a commercial virtual reality (VR) headset. They integrated a noninvasive electroencephalogram (EEG) sensor into the Meta VR headset, allowing them to measure brain activity during immersive VR interactions.
Led by Professor Nanshu Lu from the Cockrell School of Engineering’s Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics, the research team developed a comfortable EEG sensor that can be worn for extended periods. This groundbreaking technology opens up various applications, such as aiding people with anxiety, measuring mental stress in aviators using flight simulators, and even enabling a person to see through the eyes of a robot.
The combination of VR and EEG sensors has seen some use in commercial applications, but existing devices tend to be expensive and uncomfortable for users. The researchers addressed these issues by creating spongy electrodes made of soft, conductive materials, which ensure a more pleasant experience for the user and enable longer wearing times.
Traditional EEG devices often consist of caps covered in electrodes, but they are not well-suited for VR headsets. Individual electrodes face difficulties obtaining accurate readings due to hair obstructing their contact with the scalp. To overcome these challenges, the research team incorporated soft, conductive materials into the headset’s top strap and forehead pad, along with a flexible circuit with conductive traces, similar to electronic tattoos. An EEG recording device was attached to the back of the headset to complete the setup.
The potential of this technology extends beyond psychological applications. It will play a crucial role in a major research project at UT Austin, focusing on a new robot delivery network and the study of human-robot interactions. People involved in this project will use the VR headsets to observe the world from a robot’s perspective while the device simultaneously measures the mental load of such observations over extended periods. This feature ensures that operators can monitor safety and respond to potential accidents promptly.
To validate the effectiveness of the VR EEG headset, the researchers designed a driving simulation game. In collaboration with brain-machine interface expert José del R. Millán, they developed a scenario in which users press a button to respond to turn commands while their brain activity is measured through the EEG. This approach allows the team to gauge users’ level of attention and engagement.
The researchers have already filed preliminary patent paperwork for their EEG technology and are keen to collaborate with VR companies to integrate their innovation directly into VR headsets. This breakthrough not only enhances the VR experience but also opens up a plethora of possibilities in understanding human behavior and enhancing human-robot interactions.