Play at the cutting edge of technology

Where many companies have closed their R&D grounds, Thales’ own Natlab is alive and well. At Hengelo, Johan de Heer leads applied research on brain-computer interfaces.

Brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) sound very sci-fi. Images appear of people controlling systems with their minds. A BCI can also be used for more mundane applications, such as monitoring someone’s level of fatigue. This is what Johan de Heer and his team are studying at Thales Research & Technology (TRT) in Hengelo. “We measure people’s brain activity as they work. When their performance starts to slow down, it will activate a red light, signaling that they need to take a break or someone else needs to take over.

TRT is Thales’s new ideas incubator. “The company as a whole comprises 6 global business units providing solutions ranging from technologies for scientific exploration in space to countering cybersecurity attacks from the deep dark web. Each of these GBUs consists of business lines, which in turn contain product lines. Orthogonal to this structure is a corporate research organization, TRT, with locations all over the world. In the Netherlands we have one in Delft and one in Hengelo, the one I run,” says De Heer. “We carry out all sorts of advanced research projects, relatively independently but still focused on delivering results for the benefit of our GBUs. As Philips once had its famous Natuurkundig Laboratorium, you could say that we are the Natlab of Thales.

“Although a relatively small research topic within Thales, BCIs are on the radar of our senior managers,” notes De Heer. “Recently, our group technical director, Bernhard Quendt, gave a speech to around 100 of our top managers. He presented six technology areas that he believes are highly relevant to the business, and brain-computer interfaces was one of them. Early next year, I am organizing a BCI hackathon with students from the University of Twente, and our CTO group has agreed to come on a Sunday, on their way from their home in Germany to our headquarters in Paris, to serve on the jury.

serious game
De Heer first studied electronics at the HAN University of Applied Sciences and continued with a master’s degree in cognitive science at Radboud University Nijmegen. A one-year stay at the Nijmegen Institute for Cognition and Information (now the Donders Institute) sparked his interest in applied research, which he later developed at TNO. After a doctorate in cognitive sciences at the University of Tilburg, he joined the Institute of Telematics in Enschede in 2001.

“They had just decided to create new centers of expertise, and as a proactive and enterprising man that I am, I immediately proposed to do something radically different from what they had been doing for five years. I called it cognitive engineering,” De Heer recalls with a smile. “They liked the idea and appointed me to lead this new expertise group. With a multidisciplinary team, we began to research how humans and systems can be better aligned so that they are mutually reinforcing. One of the apps we created was a proof-of-principle security camera system that could autonomously zoom in on regions of interest for closer human inspection. »

In 2007, two years before the Institute of Telematics became the old Novay, a new business opportunity arose – but not the one De Heer had imagined. “My plan was to start my own company in the field of cognitive engineering and I approached an old acquaintance at Thales to make him a launch customer. I have to present my idea to the CTO at the time, Dick Arnold. The ten minutes he gave me turned into five hours of discussion. We clicked and shortly after, when he was about to retire, he asked me to take over his position director at TRT in Enschede, then transferred to Hengelo, so instead of my client, Thales became my employer.

“At the time, TRT was involved in a collaboration with the University of Twente, called T-Xchange,” says De Heer. “When I took over as director, they were focused on virtual reality in a wide range of settings. Under my leadership, we professionalized the organization and redirected our efforts towards serious gaming. The partnership lasted another ten years: in the first five, we looked at gaming technology to accelerate collaborative decision-making processes, in the next five on its use for educational purposes.In 2017, the organization continued as TXchange, a 100% subsidiary of Thales providing game-based learning solutions.”

The human-machine association
Once the serious game was over, De Heer and his TRT researchers in Hengelo embarked on a new adventure. “Learning through play is about stimulating people to acquire new knowledge and adopt new behaviors. This triggered a whole series of reflections with us, moving us from analyzing behavior in play to measuring underlying neurophysiology through bio-sensing As a new research topic, the group decided to use brain activity to assess human behavior in interactions with (autonomic) systems.

The new program was launched with a feasibility study. “We have launched projects, both at national and European level, and collaborations with suppliers of biodetection hardware and software. We started thinking about what configurations would best fit our purpose and context. A smartly positioned sensor is clearly much more user-friendly than a headset with 256 wires sticking out of it. But where do we put this sensor? What are we measuring? How are the measurements interpreted? How do we translate them into an assessment? And then there are the privacy aspects of collecting personal data and the ethical aspects of interfacing with the brain.

The team’s current efforts focus on the application of BCIs in the human-machine association, as De Heer calls it. “Capturing brain signals to accurately interpret someone’s mental state, visualize it, and provide neurofeedback to reduce stress levels – that’s basically what we do. As part of a European project, for example, we put people in a crisis management situation with these devices on their heads. As they perform their tasks, we measure their mental load in real time. Upon detecting a dip, their supervisor gets that red light, indicating that action is needed. These are the kind of apps we are currently reviewing.

BCIs also have an advantage over them, acknowledges De Heer, alluding to ethical aspects. “It is also possible to reinject an electrical signal into the brain. Studies show it can improve cognition, help people learn better, be less tired, or recover faster. The US Navy is already studying such a two-way BCI. And in healthcare, deep brain stimulation has become an accepted treatment for tremors. Although still beyond our target, this contributes to the attractiveness of the technology. I want to emphasize that every experiment we conduct has been extensively vetted by ethics committees.

Where many companies have closed their R&D sites, the Thales Natlab is alive and well. For De Heer, this is one of the company’s main USPs. With sites close to the universities of Delft and Twente, TRT bridges the gap between academia and industry, between scientific research and corporate R&D.

“Exploring cutting-edge technologies like brain-computer interfaces, without the pressure of having an immediate commercial impact – there aren’t many companies left where you can do this kind of applied research,” concludes De Heer. . “Of course there are limits to what we can do and yes our window for impact has become narrower, but Thales still offers the freedom to look many years into the future of technology.”

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About Jessica J. Bass

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