Neurotech for the Rest of Us
When we launched this publication in 2001, we predicted that the neurotechnology industry would expand significantly in the years to follow. We were certainly right about that. One of the things we were wrong about is the speed with which consumer applications of neurotechnology would emerge. We expected that computer hardware and software vendors would be chomping at the bit to integrate neural data into their products, and that frankly didn’t happen. A number of vendors began to offer low-cost EEG headsets, but that product segment has yet to explode, perhaps for want of a killer app, or perhaps because the technology was just not yet ready for prime time.
At the risk of being twice-bitten, we’re ready to repeat our prediction that neurotechnology—more specifically noninvasive BCIs—will penetrate the consumer electronics market in a big way in the near future. Much of this renewed optimism stems from our conversation with Kernel founder Byran Johnson at the 20th Annual Neurotech Leaders Forum earlier this month. The dialog offered a reality check on Kernel’s early pronouncements. “I started Kernel with the specific intent of advancing human intelligence,” he told attendees at the 2016 Neurotech Leaders Forum, a few days after he announced his $100 million investment in Kernel. Kernel’s short-term tactics may have changed in the last four years but Johnson’s lofty goal has not.
While Kernel has put the idea of invasive brain implants on the back burner, at last for now, Johnson is convinced that the company’s new Flow 50 headset, which is based on time-domain near infrared spectroscopy, will make high-fidelity brain recording mainstream in the years ahead. “I’d say the largest opinion change I had from four years ago is that I did not think we would be building noninvasive technology. Now that we are several years into it, I think that is the right decision for Kernel at this point in time,” he said at this year’s conference.
Johnson envisions that future Flow consumers will consider brain data in much the same way they now use nutritional data. Borrowing a term from his previous life as the founder of Venmo, he said that “friction reduction” would be an important concept to help smooth the introduction of neuroimaging into the mass market.
While the initial pricepoint of the Flow helmet, $5000, may seem a bit pricey, let’s not forget that when the Apple LaserWriter hit the market in 1986, it was priced at $8000, but it nonetheless gave birth to the desktop publishing market. And Johnson believes he can get the cost of his NIRS device well under $1000 once sufficient demand emerges.
While Bryan Johnson may lack the charisma that Steve Jobs had, his vision and his resolve remind us of the Apple founder. And maybe that’s all consumer neurotech needs: an evangelist to lead us into the future.
Editor and Publisher