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It's the thought that counts

A computer screen displays Chris Aimone's brain waves (top purple line) (J.P. Moczulski for The Globe and Mail)

Toronto tech firm turns mental energy into profitable process of illumination

David McDougall

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

Last summer, employees of the small Toronto tech company InteraXon were sitting in their Dundas Street West office, conjuring ways to exploit their mind-controlling technology. Maybe they could use their brainwave sensors to build some kind of telekinetic musical instrument made with singing glass bowls? Or a thought-driven heat lamp?

But the Ontario government came up with the brightest master plan. Acting on a non-extrasensory tip from the Ministry of Research and Innovation, the Ministry of Tourism contacted them, asking if they had the power to illuminate the CN Tower.

“We thought about it for a minute and went, ‘Well, I guess so, yeah. Let's do it,' ” recalls Trevor Coleman, one of InteraXon's founders.

A few days later the ministry came back again and asked if they could do something with Niagara Falls and Parliament Hill, too. In what will be their biggest venture to date, InteraXon will use its special technology to send brainwaves from the pavilion at the Vancouver Olympics to those three landmarks back east.

“They also wanted us to light up the ice-fishing huts in North Bay,” reports Mr. Coleman, “but we thought that would be a little too much … scope.”

Previously, they built items such as a thought-controlled video game where players race rocket ships using beta waves – a big hit in the club scene.

Then there's the chair that levitates when you reach a meditative brain-state.

When visitors to the Ontario Pavilion next month put on the headphone-like brainwave sensors, their mental activity will be communicated to control systems that light up each of the sites. Slow your mind and the lights dim as the brain starts producing lower-frequency alpha waves. Higher-frequency beta waves of an alert mind make the lights come to life – comet trails stream down the shaft of the CN Tower; backlit Niagara Falls starts to glow in shades of purple and red; Parliament Hill springs out of the shadows.

“[The data] can be pretty difficult to master at first,” explains project engineer Chris Aimone, an unobtrusive sensor resting over his forehead as he watches a graphic readout of his thought patterns coruscating across a white monitor.

The three-person company grew out of an eclectic crowd of artists and engineering students working under the tutelage of Steve Mann, a engineering professor at the University of Toronto and a self-proclaimed cyborg.

Project leader Ariel Garten, 30, a fashion designer and practising psychotherapist who holds a degree in neuroscience, first got involved with a brainwave jazz concert with several of Mr. Mann's students back in 2003, when dozens of audience members were wired up to EEG sensors used to modulate the musicians' electric instruments. “When I saw this technology, I thought, ‘Something needs to be done with it.' ”

Later she teamed up with Mr. Aimone, 31, a talented designer with a background in electrical engineering, and Mr. Coleman, 29, a former club promoter with a flare for business. “We have an insane amount of creativity on this team,” says Ms. Garten, who is wearing a pair of rainbow-striped rubber boots and sitting on a fun-fur-covered teeter-totter in the corner of their warehouse-lab amid an impressive array of powerful computers, sophisticated electronics and empty Pizzaiolo boxes.

She says their diversity gives them an edge when it comes to exploring this new technology. “It allows us to come up with funny ideas and weird ideas and the right ideas. … Something that both functions technologically, is sound scientifically, is aesthetically pleasing, engages emotionally. All of those different things,” she says. “How do we do that? I don't know, at five in the morning?”

The project with the Ontario government, which has a mid-six-figure budget, was a big score for the company, catapulting their fledgling business from the thick ether of ideas to front-stage reality. But apart from the exposure, the best part about going to the Olympics, they say, is the ideas they get to spark.

“One of the things we think is really important is kind of being evangelists for this technology,” says Mr. Coleman. “Every time someone has the experience for the first time and they control something with their mind – a levitating chair or a toy car in a track – they immediately come up with 10 new ideas, right there.”

Special to The Globe and Mail

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