The CSNE Hackathon

Wayne Gillam

Bringing together a diverse group of students

Fifteen university students gathered at the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering (CSNE) Feb. 10-13 to participate in the CSNE’s third annual Hackathon. This competition challenged students to design novel solutions for sensorimotor neural engineering problems and/or create innovative tools for educational outreach, all within a fast-paced, 36-hour period of time. The event was entirely student-run, organized by University of Washington (UW) Bioengineering PhD students, Nile Wilson and James Wu, and sponsored by the CSNE and its Student Leadership Council. This year, the Hackathon also received support and involvement from an industry affiliate of the CSNE, OpenBCI.

Hackathon participants came from the UW, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, San Diego State University and other CSNE-affiliated partner institutions and programs across the country. The students represented diverse backgrounds and academic disciplines, but they all shared a common interest in neural engineering and the desire to put their knowledge to use building something new, something that perhaps has never been attempted or seen before.

"I think the coolest thing about the CSNE Hackathon is that students with diverse backgrounds get to work together on mixed hardware/software projects to ultimately benefit society," Wilson said. "There are plenty of awesome hackathons out there, but I think the neural engineering theme of ours makes it unique."

Engineering innovative projects with real-world applications

Hackathon participants were first sorted into five competing teams and then provided a wide variety of equipment, such as basic circuit components, soldering irons and a 3-D printer. They were also given some proprietary devices to use such as the Microsoft HoloLens-Development Edition, Sensoria Developer's Kit and BiostampRC wearable EMG sensors, as well as OpenBCI products such as Ganglion boards, Cyton boards and the Ultracortex Mark IV EEG Headset.

The student teams were then tasked with working together to identify what their project would be, what real-world problem it would solve, and building a working prototype within the allotted time. Teams were asked to keep in mind the judging criteria, which included alignment with the CSNE's mission and vision, project innovation, technological merit, ethical considerations and presentation quality. At the end of the Hackathon, teams presented their work to a public audience and a panel of CSNE-affiliated judges. Each student received a CSNE Hackathon t-shirt for participating, and the winning team received 3-D printed brain trophies.

Winning team entry and other Hackathon projects

This year's winning Hackathon project was DropStop, an interactive rehabilitation system for patients with foot drop, a common side effect of stroke, spinal cord injury and certain hip surgeries. This device collects electromyogram (EMG) signals from leg and foot muscles and translates them into biofeedback in the form of light emitting diode (LED) output. This line of blinking lights on a circuit board serves as biofeedback the patient can use in their physical therapy. While engaged in leg and foot exercises, the user can observe through the LED output that muscles in their dropped foot are indeed activating, even if they can't visibly see those muscles move.

Four other team projects were finished and submitted to the judges for review:

  • EEGuide: Using OpenBCI signal processing and extraction, this neurofeedback device is a headset that picks up EEG signals from the brain and provides real-time feedback and interpretation of those signals. EEGuide has potential clinical applications to help reduce stress and to assist patients with neurological conditions such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Potential commercial applications, such as enhancing guided meditations for stress reduction, are a possibility for this Hackathon entry as well.
  • Personal Baseball Pitch Trainer: This motion-capture program uses a MYO armband and 5-DT Data glove to record muscle activity through electromyogram (EMG) signals and correlate those signals with geometric motion. The collected data gives a more complete picture of muscle movement, could help improve athletic performance, and could possibly help with monitoring stroke patients and their recovery.
  • Stressless: Better stress management helps to improve disease outcomes in individuals affected by diseases such as multiple sclerosis. This virtual reality device gameifies stress reduction by using a virtual reality headset to immerse the user in a relaxing game of golf. The user can "win" the game by reducing their own stress levels in their body, essentially creating a closed-loop biofeedback system.
  • Extend Your Limits: This project gameifies physical therapy, using EMG and wearable flexion sensors to measure muscle movement. The wires and sensors in this system are built to send signals wirelessly to a HoloLens headset, which uses virtual and augmented reality to provide biofeedback and instruct the user as to which types of exercises they need to do. The device was envisioned to help patients with Parkinson’s disease and other neuromuscular conditions that require routine physical therapy.

The Hackathon’s goal of bringing students together to address sensorimotor neural engineering problems involving spinal cord injury, stroke and other neurological conditions may not result in market-ready products, at least right away, but the event aligns well with the CSNE’s mission and vision to develop and engineer neural technology that will help the body heal, feel and move again.

"Realistically, the products of the Hackathon will not achieve the goals listed in the CSNE's mission due to their limited time for development, but the idea generation could be something that guides future research," Wilson said. "In addition, as a National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center, the CSNE also strives to enhance the student experience. I believe this event provides great opportunity for students to grow and feel active in the neural engineering community."

For more information about the CSNE Hackathon, please contact Nile Wilson or James Wu.