Partnering up to turn innovations into novel and feasible applications
Groundbreaking innovations: as a leading research institute, imec at Holst Centre is at the very forefront of on-chip sensor technology. But to discover the true potential of such technology in the real world, imec regularly partners with designers and industry.
One such partner is the Dutch-based design agency GBO Innovation makers. Erasing the lines between technology and design, the fruitful and symbiotic partnership between imec and GBO not only makes technology fit for purpose, but also makes purpose define technology.
At imec we do groundbreaking research and think up all kinds of innovative applications using sensors and chips,' explains Bernard Grundlehner, Systems Architect Connected Health Solutions within imec at Holst Centre. 'Only snag is that a brilliant idea isn't worth much if it turns out that its real-life application doesn't match up to what you had in mind.'
'In 2010, we were looking into applying our into applying our newly developed EEG read-out circuits into real tests. Typically, such tests are carried out by placing EEG electrodes with conductive gel on the scalp. The placing of these sensors needs to be done with extreme accuracy: it not only makes it time consuming, it can only be done by a professional. What's more, especially for measurements over a longer time, the electrodes need to be glued. The electrodes are subsequently connected to an EEG amplifier with wires. Having such electrodes on your scalp therefore seriously reduces mobility and can be the cause of considerable discomfort.'
'So, we asked ourselves, what if we could develop a mobile, consumer-like device with professional grade results? We most certainly had the high-quality sensors required for EEG tests, but we lacked the know-how to develop the wearable device we had in mind. It's why we turned to GBO,' Bernard recalls. 'We were already working with them – and continue to do so to this day – on a number of other collaborative projects.'
Imec has advanced sensors that are ideally suited to capture the brain's electrical activity, with dry electrodes that require no conductive gel, even through hair. The challenge though was that the sensors needed to be placed on the head in a secure way, without causing any discomfort whatever to the patient. With not one head being the same as the next, we first had to do extensive research into how we could realize a one-size-fits-all solution,' Jacques Gramser, Director at GBO explains.
Bernard: 'When GBO had successfully designed a first, rather technical, prototype, imec engaged with a consortium of Japanese research partners for the development of a headset to be used for research into measuring emotions and cognitive processes. The headset had to have the look and feel of a consumer product. It needed to be comfortable to wear and fit different head sizes and shapes.'
Jacques: 'We were fully aware that – as the saying goes – you never get a second chance to make a first impression! And we knew that the first impression (and functionalities) of what was intended to be a highly professional wearable with a consumer-like look & feel would 'make it or break it' for our client. We had a prototype, but this was a unique opportunity to take our design to a higher level!'
What the designers and engineers at GBO Innovation makers did
Jacques: 'The great thing about our collaboration with imec at Holst Centre – in this and many other projects – is that it's an almost symbiotic partnership. Their question to us was clear: to create a one-size-fits-all, wearable (headset) that would offer maximum comfort to the wearer, with maximum performance using their unique sensor technology. And, of course, it had to be attractive, discrete, sophisticated and robust.'
'One of the first challenges that we hit upon, was in the creative phase,' recalls Bastiaan Hemmes, Product Designer at GBO. 'The shape and size of Japanese heads (and skulls) is generally different from our European ones. To be able to make a headset that would fit Japanese patients comfortably, we first had to do extensive research into Japanese head shapes.'
'Secondly, imec had placed its sensors into what they (and we) considered as being a discrete box. But such 'discrete' on the minimalistic head band that our designers came up with, turned out to be massive. So, we asked imec to go back to their drawing board.'
'This resulted in a sensor with an innovative and unique brush-like protruding surface* that pushes through a patient's hairs to gently touch the skin beneath and take accurate EEG measurements.'
What imec did
Bernard: 'You could say that all our work is done once we've realized a new innovation. Such as the highly sensitive and accurate EEG read-out chips. But, the next step is equally important!'
Bastiaan points out: 'Real-life applications often call for something different or additional to make your innovation truly functional and value-adding.'
Bernard: 'It's here where a partner such a GBO brings us the collaboration and knowledge that is needed to turn breakthrough technology into breakthrough, validated and feasible products. The great thing with GBO is that they go beyond just the design phase to ensure proof of concept by actually producing it.'
What happened next
Using mock-ups, GBO defined the final shape and size-adjustment mechanism, as well as user interaction details like button connector and LEDs. Based on a 3D-CAD design, they next printed a prototype in their 3D printer for further testing and fine-tuning. The mock-ups were tested in Japan, on Japanese test subjects. In this way, GBO managed to take sensor innovation and turn it into an exclusive, elegant and comfortable wearable with unique electrode measurement technology. A limited exclusive series of EEG headsets was then manufactured by GBO.
Bernard: 'Our innovations are easier to sell if their benefits and applications are demonstrated in a real use case scenario featuring a viable product. On the other hand, we're not in the business to sell an end-product. What makes our collaboration with GBO so unique is that – thanks to their prize-winning attention to both functionality and aesthetics – their design helps us tell what our innovations can bring clients. As we are owner of all design patents, added benefit is that if a client likes a design, we can offer them both the tech and the blueprint for an end product.'
Bastiaan: 'Most often our freedom to operate as designers is limited by brand guidelines or other product requirements. Working in collaboration with imec we get maximum freedom to design and help make their technology value-adding for real life applications. In the case of the headband, we were determined to make an iconic design for imec's Japanese client. And, at the same time, a design that would be so ingenious that it could be easily adapted to use for other measurement purposes.'
Bernard: 'Moving forward, we're collaborating with GBO in many other ways to use sensor technology in consumer-grade wearables, including a watch and glasses. And we've also been working with them on creating a so-called 'investigational' device. It's where design meets clinical studies: to create a minimalistic wearable that offers patients maximum comfort, and clinicians proven sensor technology.'
About GBO Innovation makers
Combining design skills with engineering capabilities, GBO Innovation makers goes beyond design to develop products that are not only appealing and functional, but also ready for production. We design, develop and deliver innovative products beyond expectations for more than 30 years.
How does an EEG work?
The billions of cells in our brain produce very small electrical signals that form non-linear patterns called brainwaves. An EEG measures the electrical activity in the outer layer of the brain. EEG sensors are placed on a participant's head, then the electrodes non-invasively detect brainwaves from the subject. They can record up to several thousands of snapshots of the electrical activity generated in the brain within a single second.
What does it show?
Our brain is constantly absorbing and processing information even during sleep. All of this activity generates electrical signals that EEG sensors pick up. This allows for changes in brain activity to be captured even if there is no visible behavioral response, such as a movement or a facial expression. Results can help identify emotional states affected by external stimuli.