The $100 SpikerBox v1.0!

May 12 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

Apparently the $100 spike boyz have been busy bees over the past year. To recap:

As I stumbled back deep into the UU section (the end) of the afternoon SfN poster session in search of coffee, I noticed a bit of a crowd surrounding a poster board, in rapt attention. As I approached they started laughing and clapping. This is unusual. There is rarely a crowd back in the History / Teaching (and now Ethics) section of the poster sessions.
I decided to investigate.

...
Spike-Prototypes400.jpgTheir submitted abstract lays out the goal of the study:

We here present a self-imposed engineering challenge. If we have a standard PC laptop and a cricket caught in the back yard, can we record a spike (action potential) for under $100 using components purchased solely from local neighborhood hardware stores and Radioshack?

YouTube and podcast (part of Neuropod podcast).
So, what do these gents have on tap for this year?


They have incorporated as Backyard Brains. This is fantastic. So what are they about?

About "Backyard Brains"
As grad students at University of Michigan, co-founders Tim and Greg often interacted with schoolchildren during neuroscience outreach events. Children consistently demonstrate creativity, however they are frequently unaware of the possibilities of biotechnology. Electronic kits, ant farms, chemistry sets, and toy microscopes are currently available, however these devices do not provide insight into the inner workings of the body.
We developed a bio-technology kit that was affordable and user-friendly to be used in classrooms and at home. We look forward to bringing you our first product, the Spikerbox, in a few weeks.

Gage and Marzullo....take it away.

18 responses so far

  • Becca says:

    This is so freakin awesome!

  • Luigi says:

    Their 'conventional' price estimates are way out of line. There are many different commercial amplifiers and digitizers that can do what they describe very well (probably better) for maybe $2000-$3000 total. As an undergrad, I worked in a lab where we built all our own differential amplifiers, for maybe $80 each. A single transistor was half the cost. It's not clear whether their $100 device includes any sort of digitizing capabilities (I don't think it does, and hearing what basically sounds like static will only get a high school lab so far). But that's easy to solve as there are many digitizers on the market. Axon Instruments (now 'Molecular Devices') used to give away (free) a little digitizer perfect for this kind of stuff.
    Still, one hundred bucks is pretty darn good. Great idea. Hope they succeed.
    In the mean time (or instead), my best advice is find a copy of 'Experimental Neurobiology: A Laboratory Manual' by Oakley and Schafer. Don't let the copyright (ca. 1978) scare you; except for the use of digitizers & computers instead of oscilloscopes or paper-based chart recorders, electrophysiological technology really hasn't changed. This book is (or should be) the bible of neurophysiology teaching resources. I've never seen anything else that even comes close. Has anyone else?

  • TheAmazinglyDifficultFeatofClicking says:

    Luigi,
    http://www.backyardbrains.com/Spikerbox.aspx
    Come on now dude, try to keep up!

  • Luigi says:

    OK, Mr. Amazing, I clicked. It looks like I was right; the Spikerbox doesn't include a digitizer. It plugs into the laptop's audio input. So it's basically just an amp circuit with connectors.
    I'm not saying that's bad or anything. It's still great. And a nice idea for teaching labs.
    But let's not get carried away. You can get a nicer thing commercially from Warner or Dagan for about a thousand bucks, which is nowhere near the 'fifty thousand dollars' they claim (~2:18 in the video). Marketing & distribution & certifications & tech support are not cheap, either. Just because you can put something together for a hundred bucks doesn't mean other people are morons or cheats.
    [Disclosure: I am a former tech consultant for a major scientific equipment manufacturer.]

  • AStartlingGeniusofRemarkableAttractiveness says:

    $1000 is not equal to $100.
    Particularly when it comes to hobbyist parents and schoolteachers who are paying for the extras out of their own personal pocketbooks.

  • Luigi says:

    Well, OK. Fine. SpikerBox is nifty. But it's only a start. For a hundred bucks you still have to sell people more than the ability to hear static from a bug leg. We are basically talking a low power op amp that plugs into the audio input jack. (The little external speaker shown in the SpikerBox photos is not actually needed, since the software could send that same stuff out the computer speakers). There are a zillion cool things that could be done.
    1) Two-lead ECGs (EKGs). Everyone loves ECGs.
    2) Extracellular recordings of earthworm giant escape fibers. See how that nightcrawler evades your grasp!
    3) Investigate plant ESP (AKA the 'Backster effect'). A great way to learn the difference between science and pseudoscience.
    4) And as long as we got the previous one in there, maybe the SpikerBox could be jiggered to do Galvanic skin responses. A lie detector!
    5) And jeezus, why stop with a couple wires hanging out of the thing? Why not have a bunch of transducers? Cheap photocells for recording day length and light beam interruptions etc. Cheap speaker/mic pairs for a 'sonic rangefinder'.
    Endless possibilities!

  • TheBrillianceofAJillionCandlepowerAndHumble says:

    Luigi,
    Those guys totally need you for Scientific Advisory Board duty. Get on it!

  • Luigi says:

    Sorry, Mr. Brilliance. I thought you might already be one of them, pumping their product on this board.
    What they need is a bunch of people to develop applications, and then someone to write a comprehensive applications/lab manual for the thing. They can write to me via DM. He knows an email address that'll get to me (eventually). But I am also full of free advice: I suggest they hand out several dozen free SpikerBoxes to creative people, collect the ideas, filter them through educators, and get writing on that lab manual. They need to change their focus from the SpikerBox to what the SpikerBox can do. Otherwise it's just a party trick. And $100 for a party trick is actually quite expensive.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    They need to change their focus from the SpikerBox to what the SpikerBox can do.
    I was hanging around their presentations in History/Teaching of Neuroscience section a little bit last year. There was a great deal of interest from neuroscience educators who seemed to have no trouble seeing what the $100 Spike Project could do for them. I don't teach in a typically resource impoverished setting so I'm inclined to take this enthusiasm from those that do at face value.

  • Luigi says:

    Enthusiasm is good. But I still bet they could sell more SpikerBoxes for $200 with a great applications guide/lab manual and some transducers/electrode variations than they could sell SpikerBoxes alone for $100. Otherwise...
    $100 to blow on a cockroach leg and hear static? C'mon. Not gonna sell. Anyplace that's going to have thousand dollar laptops for each lab setup can also afford more or will want more. And anybody willing to be creative can be a lot more creative for just as cheap with stuff from someplace like National Instruments.
    Fortunately, it's obvious these guys are talking to successful educators and business people. Good for them.

  • bsci says:

    I think Luigi's point is that if you want to get this into high school class rooms (as opposed to people tinkering after school) you need to have software that does the basic data processing along with a pre-written lab manual. Even the teachers who have great ideas for uses aren't going to sit around and program up all of them. I'd venture to say that taking any of the ideas on Luigi's list and turning it into a high school lab project that could be completed in a class or two would be 10+ hours work from a teacher. Cutting down that prep time greatly increases the value of that product.
    Merely a wiki on the SpikerBox website where people can distribute their own labs and processing code would be a good start. (Of course they need an actual marketed product first too).
    Adding on to Luigi's list of utilities, I wonder if it would also be able to detect EEG alpha waves (opening up the possibility of brainwave controlled devices to the high school level programming). A bunch of Luigi's ideas and EEG would require more than one electrode. It's unclear how much cost could be saved by having multiple electrodes in one device as opposed to buying multiple $100 boxes. Also, if they go through the computer microphone input, then that limits the system to one electrode per computer. That greatly limits the ways people could interact with the system.
    For the people here who know the electronics better, what do you get for the extra $1000 dollars? Would a $200-$300 device open up a range of new experiments and flexibility that are limited by the current price point?
    That all said, this is a great idea and I'm looking forward to seeing this on the market and seeing what people do with it.

  • Fortunately, it's obvious these guys are talking to successful educators and business people. Good for them.

    Dude, are you fucking nutso!?!?!? They obviously should be talking to you!
    Don't sell yourself short, man. You've won multiple teaching awards!
    Without your deep and perceptive insights into what they need to do, they are doomed to failure or, at best, weak minor piddly success. With you on board providing detailed input, they are sure to reach alpine heights of pedagogical brilliance.

  • bsci says:

    I'd keep the lab manual separate from pricing. From my understanding, a typical lab pricing setup would be $1000-$2000 for educational materials alike a manual or lab books, and $100 for each unit. By giving away some ed materials for free and nurturing an online community, they can probably keep the cost down (unless they need that extra profit to survive).
    They could probably create a more useful device for more money, but they balance of utility vs. affordability is complex.

  • Luigi says:

    A bunch of Luigi's ideas and EEG would require more than one electrode. It's unclear how much cost could be saved by having multiple electrodes in one device as opposed to buying multiple $100 boxes. Also, if they go through the computer microphone input, then that limits the system to one electrode per computer. That greatly limits the ways people could interact with the system.

    I am not sure, obviously, but I strongly suspect that the SpikerBox is based on an op amp so they've basically built a differential amplifier. Which means, technically, that they actually have two electrodes and output the difference. All my ideas should work. I too wondered whether the SpikerBox could do a one-channel EEG. Those are pretty small signals, so it depends on the quality of their op amp, but I don't see why not.

    I think Luigi's point is that if you want to get this into high school class rooms (as opposed to people tinkering after school) you need to have software that does the basic data processing along with a pre-written lab manual. Even the teachers who have great ideas for uses aren't going to sit around and program up all of them.

    Yea. Exactly. I didn't want to say it, but I've generally been unimpressed with most* of the people I've met in small undergrad institutions or high schools where a $100 electrophysiology setup might be a boon. What they really need is to buy a lab they can take teach without thinking or working too hard. But it's gotta be in budget.
    *most is the key word here. Not all. I am humbled greatly by some.

    Without your deep and perceptive insights into what they need to do, they are doomed to failure or, at best, weak minor piddly success. With you on board providing detailed input, they are sure to reach alpine heights of pedagogical brilliance.

    Thanks again for the usual vote of confidence, Comrade. I value your support. But if you don't stop sending me naked photos of yourself, I'm gonna have to call the cops.

  • Tim says:

    Great feedback Luigi. Gearhead to Gearhead, you have a great understanding of electronics.
    Indeed, the biggest criticism/feedback we are getting is that we need to incorporate a lesson plan and lab manual. We have begun talking to some senior faculty here at the School of Education, and we plan to partner up with some teachers this summer. We have a bunch of educators willing to try it out, but now we need to secure some grant funding to increase our production.
    It has crossed my mind that the SpikerBox can be turned into general bioamplifier. You can do a lot with one-channel amps, and the microphone labtop input can sample at 96 kHz. We have a lot of other ideas cooking in this general theme of "low-cost neurophysiology."
    I want to point out that we toyed with the idea of making this a non-for-profit, but getting non-for-profit status is difficult, and there are much more opportunities locally for startups (our University is trying to encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship, for obvious reasons). The general public has a good intuitive understanding of how the heart and lungs work, but zilch on brain function. It puts a smile on my face everytime I have shown someone for their first time a neuron in realtime on the computer and then said "there are 100 billion of these doing a similar thing in your head right now." People walk away from this with a much better feeling of what the firing of neurons actually means. Plus, this is all very portable. We could use a Grass, a National Instruments Board, etc, but almost all of those require AC power and are big. We have literally plugged the thing into our car stereo and driven down Main Street using the cockroach leg as a tachometer by sticking the SpikerBox out the window.
    Thanks for all the feedback though; I admit the project may be a bit grandiose and sometimes I feel a bit silly. I've got a lot to chew on. Visit us at SfN in Chicago!

  • Luigi says:

    Tim,
    If you teamed up with some educator-types, you could probably put together a good NSF proposal to fund development of applications/exercises. Make it clear in the proposal that you're not just going to dork around with the thing and that you're not looking for startup capital. Call it 'Development of lab exercises using novel low-cost electrophysiology equipment' that culminates in development of a lab manual and a real-world course for some sample underserved student population. Or something like that. Talk to a program officer. Even after NSF funding you can still sell the stuff.

    Visit us at SfN in Chicago!

    Looking forward to it. Keep up the momentum. This will build chances for capital investment, or if you do apply to NSF, excite potential reviewers. Until then, all the best. I know a couple millionaires who started out a lot like you.

  • Anfa says:

    The thought of all those little cockroaches minus legs (thus slowing down their ability to get into our stuff) warms the cockles of my heart. Gotta get me one of these for the kiddies!

  • Denis Alexander says:

    Hi-end differential amplifier, $2.
    Resistors and capictor, $1.
    Battery, $1.
    The energy this kids have for teaching, priceless.
    Apply for a grant and teach neuroscience to kids. But beware of PeTA showing up. They were demonstrating at Six Flags not long ago because they held a cockroach eating contest. Six Falgs response? They are nutritious: high in protein and low in fat.

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