The Project Black Mirror demo is a sloppy fake

November 11th, 2011

If you have a pulse and an internet connection, you may have heard some of the recent buzz about Project Black Mirror. In short, they claim to have created a brain-computer interface that allows a user to control Apple's "Siri" application by thinking commands at it.

[Image: screencap of the announcement and appeal for funding]

At the time of this writing, only a few days after the group posted a video appealing for funding, a Google search reveals mentions of Project Black Mirror in hundreds of news articles and nearly 200,000 web pages. Unfortunately for those who got caught up in the storm and re-published the group's announcements without any further research or critical insight, Project Black Mirror is a fraud. Without question, their demos were faked, and here's some rather damning evidence.

Big fat red flags

Non-functional hardware

Take a look at the image below.

[Image: SpeakJet chip placed sideways]

If you haven't spotted it already: not only does there appear to be virtually nothing connected to the SpeakJet chip, it's also placed sideways in the breadboard, which shorts a number of critical pins together, and therefore would make it impossible to use.

No EEG amplifier whatsoever?

The project's blog claims that "ECG pads provide raw skin conductivity / electrical activity as analogue data (0-5v)". Let's go ahead and ignore the fact that they seem to have confused EEG with ECG (which is a completely different type of measurement), and the spurious reference to "skin conductivity" (ditto). The most glaring problem with that statement is the claim that EEG signals fall in an Arduino-friendly 0-5V positive voltage range. Suffice it to say they don't.

EEG recording is really quite difficult from an electronics design standpoint. The signals in question have amplitudes on the order of *microvolts* (sometimes with substantial DC offsets due to galvanic potentials), the impedance of electrodes attached to the scalp tends to be rather unstable, and any interesting signals are buried under loads of interference from sources both inside and outside the body. EEG amplifiers typically have a very high input impedance, excellent common-mode rejection, and carefully designed filters to separate as much of the extraneous garbage from the signal as possible – and even then they're not always reliable.

What did Project Black Mirror do? Based on their written statements, their YouTube videos and the photo shown below, they connected the electrode leads directly to the analog input terminals on the Arduino.

[Image: Electrode leads connected directly to Arduino input terminals]

In short, there's not even the slightest chance that they are actually recording EEG signals this way.

Why anybody should have been skeptical

Granted, the discrepancies mentioned above might easily slip by someone with no electronics experience, but there is plenty of cause for suspicion here beyond purely technical matters.

Why is there a row of LEDs blinking in a nonstop repeating pattern, apparently not related to anything going on in the demo? What's the point of the computer display scrolling continuous, featureless columns of numbers in green-on-black? Why put so much effort into prominent flashy indicators without including a single one that indicates something meaningful? Why show the iPhone screen up close before and after the supposed command input, but pull away so it can't be seen during the actual process in question?

Now consider the timeline. Emotiv tooks years of development work and millions of dollars of funding to produce a working product. Project Black Mirror uploaded their first demo video on November 8th, only slightly over a week after announcing their idea for the project.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, consider their approach to the issue of funding. Why doesn't their appeal video spend a single second explaining what they need funding for? If you wanted to convince strangers to invest in your project, wouldn't you spend at least a few moments to give them at least a brief overview of where the money would be going and what they could expect in return? For that matter, why reveal nothing of your identities other than first names?

What were they thinking?

I would really like to believe that this is nothing more than a silly hoax. In fact, at this point, the best option for those behind Project Black Mirror is to stop where they are and claim exactly that, because if they go forward with a Kickstarter campaign this will become outright fraud.

I hope this whole affair will encourage people to exercise a healthy measure of skepticism when claims like these come up in the future (and they will). At the same time, there is truly impressive progress being made in legitimate brain-computer interface research, and it would be terrible for a juvenile prank like this to cast undue mistrust on those efforts.

The only solution is critical thinking. Use it, people.

©2014 Greg Courville