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‘This means designing for inclusion and so spending time on understanding how to make it possible for people on the edges of the user spectrum to access it’

Quick read

➨ The digital startup is developing Cognixion ONE, a mobile headset that stimulates the brain via BCI technology and reads its activity while sending control signals back to a custom-built augmented reality app
➨ A soft launch is planned for this year, with commercial availability scheduled for 2022
➨ Visit the Cognixion One website to learn more about the headset and enquire about an early access unit

The story

Today marks the 10th Global Accessibility Awareness Day, an opportunity to reflect on what still needs to be done to fulfil the cause of this worthy annual event—giving every user a first-rate digital experience on the web. Companies such as Cognixion are doing exactly that.

You see, immersive technology could be crucial, because it can both be used to boost accessibility to digital experiences for all users and is currently grappling with this issue. Virtual reality headsets and their controllers, not to mention the underlying software, have a way to go before they are truly accessible to everyone. The XR Association (XRA), backed by the biggest manufacturers, is doing some great work here, but there is always more to do.

Cognixion, the startup based in Santa Barbara, California, USA, is actively working to boost digital experience accessibility using immersive technology.

Launched in 2014 by founder and chief executive officer Andreas Forsland, whose background is in product and user experience design, the digital startup is developing Cognixion ONE, a mobile headset that stimulates the brain via brain-computer interfacing (BCI) technology and reads its activity while sending control signals back to a custom-built augmented reality app.

Cognixion ONE - a lesson in universal design - Andreas Forsland
Andreas Forsland

The headset is actually Cognixion’s next-generation product. The startup originally developed Smartstones, a “wearable touch communicator” designed for seniors. This gesture-controlled device used sophisticated sensors and was intended to boost communication among vulnerable, often isolated older people, so had “a very specific target market”, according to Forsland.

Forsland and his team realised that this device was not something that could take off and, while their work on sensor technology was important, it did not address a more significant problem affecting communication across a number of age groups and medical conditions.

This problem was speech. Forsland says about one billion people suffer from some form of disability, affecting hearing, vision, learning, motor and speech. This last one is often considered a comorbidity and, when combined with a motor disability, accounts for approximately 509 million people. Cognixion is targeting this huge group of potential users with its new headset, aiming to deliver a digital experience that meets their needs as a base line and everyone else’s as a result.

Forsland says: “Originally, we were working on a wearable solution for a very specific market, whereas Cognixion ONE has been designed for the masses. This is a solution that everyone can wear at some point, depending on what they want to do. But we’re starting with individuals who have severe disabilities because there is a massive need for a universal reference design.”

Evolution of trying to solve a wicked problem

At the heart of Cognixion ONE is a universal design, aimed at increasing the scope of accessibility of immersive technology.

“This means designing for inclusion and so spending time on understanding how to make it possible for people on the edges of the user spectrum to access it,” Forsland explains. “In turn, making such a device easier for them to use means everyone can access it, including those who do not have disabilities.”

Cognixion ONE is “truly the reference design” for universal digital access: “If Facebook, Google or Apple were wondering how they should design this, much of the underlying design strategies and software we are using and creating should be the benchmark. We are really taking the lead in representing what accessible design can look and be like. Everything contributes toward moving immersive technology forward.”

Forsland is not short of examples of what he means (check out the headset’s full specs below). Cognixion ONE will be equal to or less than the weight of HoloLens 2, and is already lighter than Magic Leap 1, even though that device uses a satellite pack on the hip to offset its heavier elements.

Cognixion ONE - a lesson in universal design - Headset 1
Cognixion ONE specs

➨ Three context-aware predictive keyboard options (QWERTY, ABC, Linotype) 

➨ Radial sentence builder tools

➨ Integrated with a popular AI assistant

➨ 4G mobility enables full functionality on the go

➨ USB-C charging port

➨ Multiple access options: three degrees of freedom for head pointing, brain-computer interface, switch access

➨ Companion app for system configuration and remote neural monitoring

➨ AR headset with dual display option

➨ Six occipital-placed non-invasive dry passive electrodes, two auxiliary channels, plus ground and reference channels

➨ No shaving, no special gel; it just works

➨ Adjustable fitting band and electrode positioning

➨ Electrodes are disposable and replaceable when needed

➨ Eight channel real-time biosignal streaming over BLE5

➨ Data streaming over USB-C and local storage for research purposes

➨ Fixation enables selection of interface elements via use of visual evoked potentials

It is also built for comfort, with padding on the backs and sides to protect the head, as well as stability. The in-built EEG sensors require the headset to be secure and firm, so Cognixion ONE has an integrated cable system and dial covering a wide range of head sizes.

The front visor is magnetic and easy to remove. “This is a good example of the hardware design,” Forsland says. “You may need to see if the user’s eyes are open, perhaps to help them clean their face. Cogixion ONE’s visor uses magnets as opposed to fixed screws and bolts, so it can be removed in seconds, attended to and snapped back on.”

This ‘very little assembly required’ motif runs throughout Cognixion ONE, with the smartphone needed for the augmented reality capabilities also easy to snap in and out of the headset. Stereo images are projected onto the user’s eyes via smartphone and the reflective, tinted lens on the inside of the visor. Here, Cognixion made a socially inclusive design choice to use a dual display. A user can project words onto the front of the visor and communicate with others, such as a patient who is unable to verbally communicate with their doctor.

Forsland adds: “The dual display is also relevant for all kinds of things, whether you’re working in an industrial environment or outer space. There are a lot of different use cases for a dual display in augmented reality.”

The BCI technology at play in Cognixion ONE is equally impressive. Its inclusion in a device that will weigh the same or less than HoloLens 2 was made possible by advances in processor speed and capacity, materials science (for high-quality sensors), and machine learning and AI, as well as edge computing.

“Five years ago we would have needed a connection to the cloud to offload all of the processing necessary to build and run deep and shallow neural networks,” Forsland says. “Now we can do model fitting on the device and all of that can happen on the edge. In the next five to 10 years, it is just going to get better and better and faster and faster.”

Cognixion is putting this power to the test and developing software innovations that adapt for the user, whether they have a full range of movement, unable to control their movements or are unable to move at all. This is reflected in the headset’s control methods, which include head pointing, BCI or switch.

Forsland adds: “Our software innovations are for adapting to the user, across a range of movement abilities. And our algorithms can be personalised to the user in settings, so you can make it work for you.”

Watch a demo for Cognixion ONE below.

Aiming for commercial availability in 2022

Cognixion has undergone two rounds of seed funding so far and is in the process of securing further investment to prepare for a soft launch of the headset in the summer.

This new funding will be used to complete the soft launch, including manufacturing a small volume of units for early adopters and securing US Food and Drug Administration approval for the headset, as well as recruitment. The startup is aiming to go from 16 members of staff to 50, across its bases in California and Toronto, Canada, with new roles being created in product design and development, engineering and other areas to support plans for the summer and commercial availability in 2022.

Those interested in getting their hands on an early access unit can apply to join Cognixion’s waiting list. The startup is eager to speak to and work with potential research partners. Forsland says major telecommunications companies are interested to understand user content needs, as are major universities because Cognixion One represents a “big opportunity” for research outside of the lab while using BCI technology over long periods of time.

Visit the Cognixion One website to learn more about the headset and enquire about an early access unit.

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Images: Cognixion



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