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Welcome To Brain Science’s Next Frontier: Virtual Reality

Amy Robinson, executive director at the startup EyeWire, is making neuroscience into a playground for the hot tech du jour.

Welcome To Brain Science’s Next Frontier: Virtual Reality
[Photos: courtesy of EyeWire]

Virtual reality is here, and brands of all stripes are embracing the tech. The New York Times and Google newly partnered to send more than 1 million cardboard VR viewers to Times subscribers at the beginning of November so they could watch the paper’s first VR documentaries on a smartphone. Magic Leap published video of its augmented reality system online in October, causing more buzz around VR’s potential. Even Tommy Hilfiger now offers VR sets to its in-store customers so they can watch its recent New York Fashion Week show.

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Amy Robinson

But major brands aren’t the only early adopters of the latest technologies. An emerging group of science startups is using hardware innovations to create useful applications out of basic scientific concepts. One such startup, EyeWire, crowdsources computing power to visually map out delicate cells, or neurons,in the brain—and packages it as an online video game at EyeWire.org. Though the players’ 3-D visualizations primarily aid scientists, EyeWire’s executive director, Amy Robinson, has been using the mapping data to experiment with virtual reality and other tools beyond gaming to improve everyone’s understanding of the brain.

“The brain is this incredible place for data visualization,” Robinson tells me by phone from EyeWire’s Boston office. The billions of connections between neurons are enough to bring the latest tools of big-data science to their breaking points. That’s why EyeWire crowdsources video-game players to map out its neurons; neither an artificial algorithm nor a normal computer could create the same 3-D maps. EyeWire’s players, then, make up a kind of supercomputer with human intelligence.

The game comes loaded with 3-D images of several neurons. One neuron appears on the left part of the screen at all times; as the player becomes more adept at mapping, different neurons appear, their shapes increasing in complexity. On the right side of the screen is a 2-D cross-section of the neuron. Both images show where EyeWire’s artificial intelligence algorithms have begun to color in the nerve cell; these shapes are shown in blue.

The player then spots gaps that the AI missed; those voids are shown in gray or yellow, depending on the level. When she clicks on the missing piece, it turns green. If she chooses a section that the game’s algorithm definitely thinks does not belong to the selected neuron, the section turns red, and pop-ups urge her to deselect those pieces and start over. She can modulate the 2-D image she is playing with by scrolling through the 3-D image on the left. Once she fills in all the missing pieces, she moves to the next level. EyeWire intersperses the coloring challenges with periodic “Starburst Challenges” and “Happy Hours”, where players can score exclusive points. All of the players’ completed maps become part of a greater, collective neural “map.”

Neuroscience is a field for limitless exploration and new discovery. The biggest technical revolutions of the last century–nuclear energy, computing power, and space exploration—all started with basic science research that had no immediate industrial use, but evolved into important industries with rewarding applications. Now, science advocates say neuroscience is the next revolution. By exploring the mysteries of the brain, budding technologies could benefit. These technologies will, likewise, enhance basic research. So EyeWire’s Robinson is eager to venture into yet more unconventional tech projects–VR is just one of them.


Robinson’s interest in human consciousness is as winding and tangled as the neural connections in the human brain. She wants to understand exactly why she exists, and everything from science to the canonical philosophical thinkers—Nietzsche, Seneca, and Voltaire—feeds her quest for knowledge. The number of neural connections in the brain amounts to 100 terabytes. Indeed, if Robinson’s enthusiasm for neuroscience were converted to bytes, the Google Hangout she and I are having would crash.

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“If you laid all the neurons in the brain end-to-end, they would go around the earth four times,” Robinson says. Robinson puts her science communication skills to good use as a TEDx organizer and speaker; Forbes added her to its “30 Under 30” list this year in its games category.

Last year, neuroscientist Sebastian Seung and his team at MIT published an article in Nature that listed all of EyeWire’s then 2,183 contributors as co-authors. Their mapping work led Seung’s team to better understand the way humans see. Robinson is largely responsible for attracting those contributors to the game.

When Robinson joined EyeWire in 2012, the site, she says, was unattractive and had few players. Using her instinct for making connections with kindred creative spirits and her love for the latest design trends, Robinson brought in talented designers and drove EyeWire’s creative operations. Under her leadership, EyeWire’s software has become a model for scientific data visualization, having garnered top prizes from the science community. Its visualizations have even been featured in Times Square, and its player base has grown to 200,000.


Now, Robinson is uncovering new ways to understand neuroscience with hardware. In 2014, the White House invited Robinson and her team to contribute to a panel on modernizing academic research with 3-D printing. After putting their first 3-D image files onto the National Institute of Health’s 3-D print exchange repository, a Canadian biology major named James Drake unexpectedly discovered his 3-D printer’s limitations. The printer couldn’t render one of the neuron’s delicate structures well, so he refined the virtual model by hand. Robinson’s team quickly went to work on an algorithm to automate thickening the 3-D models that other scientific labs could use, in collaboration with Drake.

In April, the EyeWire team uploaded their “Neuron Safari” VR application onto Oculus Rift’s public repository, the first in a series of collaborations with the medical visualization company Indicated. But this wasn’t EyeWire’s first VR application. At TED2014, EyeWire set up a VR exhibit where visitors could don an Oculus Rift to virtually travel to the International Space Station and then tunnel through space-buoyed neurons. “The brain is so complicated that I think VR or AR are necessary for the future of mind mapping,” Robinson says.

Many neuroscience professionals champion VR’s prospects. “Virtual reality, for the human brain, is a new mode of information delivery,” says Elkhonon Goldberg, a neuroscientist and chief scientific officer at Monclarity, a company that produces a brain training game called Brainwell.

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“We’re only beginning to ask questions of how the human brain will catch up to this totally new environment,” says Goldberg. The Brainwell team is currently developing VR applications for its game.


EyeWire solely relies on public and private grants as a nonprofit startup. But more science startups are beginning to find venture capital funding, which could spawn EyeWire-like businesses. As government funds to support scientific research have cooled down, the venture capital world has been warming up to investment opportunities in tech-driven science. The Thiel Foundation’s seed-stage fund, Breakout Labs, exclusively seeds science startups. NeuroLaunch, an Atlanta-based startup accelerator that invests exclusively in neuroscience startups, graduated its first two classes of startups this year. And since 2014, Y Combinator has been steadily increasing the number of science startups it funds. It even opened its own research lab to support scientific research from which its classes could benefit.

“Now that the startup ecosystem is developing more, and there’s more people working on these deep technologies, these technologies will start to form an infrastructure that science labs, including neuroscience ones, can use to translate basic concepts into useful applications,” says Andrew Wong, founder of a new science startup fund called Boundary Impact Ventures.

Robinson, however, plans to exercise EyeWire’s independence from venture capital investment to keep exploring new avenues for neuroscience to mingle with emerging technology.


On a recent evening, 57 players were on EyeWire.org. I joined the English-language chat room on the left side of my screen. (The other available chat room is in Korean; EyeWire’s largest grantor is the KT Corporation, South Korea’s largest phone company.) On the right side of the screen, I could see today’s top scorers, most of whom resided in Western Europe; one was from South Korea. The highest-ranking American was listed as number 12.

As more people play EyeWire, neuroscientists receive more 3-D data to support their research. And Robinson receives more inspiration to view neuroscience through the lens of new technology. Robinson has embraced virtual reality–now she’s looking toward the next big tech innovation.

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EyeWire is in the early stages of a generative sound design project with the Berklee College of Music. To the first-time player, its default Philip Glass-esque background music may seem numbing. It eventually synchronizes with the movements of the player’s mouse, prodding her to keep mapping out the neuron. Now, the EyeWire-Berklee partnership will demonstrate how AI software can write its own music, with cues from the human players.

Related: Virtual Reality’s First Person Shooter Problem

About the author

I write about science and technology in the global marketplace, with a bent towards women in STEM. My work has appeared elsewhere in Quartz, Fortune, and Science, among others.

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