Feature Story

Cisco's thingQbator team creates brain signal-controlled robot

by Stephanie Chan

Cisco's ThingQBator team creates brain signal-controlled robot

How the innovation program inspires cohorts to learn and create.

Inside the thingQbator space at Cisco's San Jose campus, employees took turns wearing a brain computer interface (BCI) headset to control a robot ball on the ground. The headset picked up wearers' emotions and used these feelings to control the direction of the ball. If a user smiled, the ball would move forward—frowning meant moving backwards and clenching up in anger meant stopping the ball in its tracks. This prototype demonstration was a part of the Cisco thingQbator program, where employees team up to create new innovations that they're passionate about.

The rolling robot ball was a prototype created by the Brainiacs team, comprised of Strategy and Innovation Leader Rahul Singh, Sourcing and Supplier Manager Hemant Deshpande, and Business Systems Manager Meenakshi Narang. The BCI headset works through the signals the brain gives off when making happy or sad faces. These signals are then sent to a special software application created by the team to understand the data, which then powers the movement of the robot.

See also: Cisco's innovation programs create serial entrepreneurs

A lot of the real innovation the Brainiacs team worked on is in the software–the tool that translates brain signals to movement in a bot. The team created and trained the algorithms to understand and interpret facial expressions like a smile or frown. They then integrated this with the bot.

"Hemant and I were thinking about how we can harness the power of the brain and use it to communicate with the Internet of Things," said Singh, "We thought it would be neat to control a robot with just facial expression and thoughts."

The thingQbator program allows teams like this to truly explore next-generation innovation. The name literally combines "Internet of Things" and "incubator", and allows cohorts to use local makerspaces and its resources to innovate. thingQbator is comprised of two primary activities–community learning and prototyping cohorts. The learning aspect includes workshops, events, and speakers where attendees can network and learn about new technologies. thingQbator also requests cohorts to submit their prototype ideas in a certain space they want to explore. Cohort cycles run from ideation to prototyping to Demo Day, and repeat every six months.

See also: Innovate Everywhere Challenge discovers greatest ideas in Cisco

"There were employees who had ideas and who wanted to build prototypes but didn't have the space or resources to do that—Cisco could provide that," said Program Manager for the Strategic Innovation Group Rahul Tibrewal, "That's where the idea came from, to create a space where people can come together, share ideas, learn from each other, and just get hands-on."

The thingQbator makerspace provides the necessary resources teams can use to work on their projects. Open around-the-clock, this workspace includes local servers, robotics kits, edge routers, IoT platforms, Cisco Collaboration tools, and more. The space also includes 3D printers, milling machines, and soldering stations so that teams can get to a working prototype as quickly as possible.

Having hands-on activities and resources are why thingQbator spaces are locally based. Founded in 2015 by Chandrashekhar Raman, the first thingQbator makerspace started in Bangalore, India. Employees in nearby Pune submitted their ideas to the Bangalore campus—not realizing that activities were in-person. Because of this, Pune became Cisco's second thingQbator makerspace, with London as the third and San Jose as the fourth.

One part of Cisco's Innovation Strategy is co-development, which falls perfectly in line with thingQbator's guiding principle of education. Tibrewal says that learning is the true takeaway from the program.

"Innovation is important, because at the end of the day we want them to add value," says Tibrewal, "But the other way participants can add value is by learning something new. These are learning projects that translate into innovations."

Inspired by the success of the program, thingQbator is now expanding to universities in India, with the hope to accelerate IoT innovation in academic institutions. By doing this, the program encourages students to become entrepreneurs.

For the Brainiacs team, the future of their BCI project is full of possibilities. One way the team might take their prototype is in the realm of collaboration tools.

"We would like to use BCI to help differently abled individuals be more productive," said Singh, "For our final demo, we are building an application that lets you type messages in WebEx Teams using eye movements and facial expressions. Our goal is to allow someone to be fully productive within WebEx Teams without needing to lift a finger, quite literally."

This passion for even further prototype development inspires the thingQbator leadership to keep the program going strong.

"We are giving 110 percent at Cisco to our day jobs, but it's quite amazing that they had this idea and were passionate about it," said Tibrewal, "The Brainiacs team read research papers and wanted to get hands-on and see how things work. That's the sort of culture we're trying to build in the community."

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