If you’ve followed us over the past couple years, you’ll know we have been slowly working on a MicroManipulator to allow you to do more precise neural recordings instead of just “blindly” inserting electrodes in a cockroach leg, cricket, or earthworm. We’ve had prototypes of manipulators for about as long as we’ve been in existence, but the problem was that they took so dang long to build (about a week) and would break easily.
So, we’ve never worked beyond the working prototype stage of the manipulator as it was just too hard to produce reliably. Until today. Those “in the know” are familiar with a new technology that is taking over the hacker/Maker scene: The MakerBot! It’s a consumer grade 3D printer that allows you to design objects in programs in SketchupUp, Rhino, or AutoDesk 123 and print them on your tabletop device. Few technologies have we witnessed over the past few years that are as exciting as this one. With the MakerBot, we were able to reduce the number of pieces (not counting screws) from 21 to 5, and assembly time from a week to half a day and decreasing. Here’s what it looks like, with a video.
Compare it to one of our earlier prototypes from ~two years ago.
We shipped this first production unit to our friends Mohsen Omrani and Ethan Hemming at Queen’s University at Kinston, Ontario, who are testing it in their undergraduate neuroscience lab course. We have 1-2 more design tweaks to implement, and then we plan to begin offering it for sale in 2-4 weeks, first in preassembed form and eventually in kit form (both will be priced similarly to the SpikerBox). Stay tuned! And yes, as with our all inventions, this is open-source. We will post all our .stl files and schematics so you can print it on your own 3D printer if you like.
We want to thank our new colleague Tiburcio De La Carcova for helping tremendously with the design and production over the last intense two weeks as we raced to complete the unit in time for Mohsen. Tiburcio is a lifelong hardware freak and co-founder of videogame company Atakama Labs in Santiago, Chile.
Though we haven’t formally announced it yet, we are currently spending some time back-and-forth between Michigan and Chile on a “StartUp Chile” fellowship to bring neuroscience to the schools and students of South America. Notably, this manipulator was “Hecho en Chile” in a brand new hackerspace Tiburcio is building to encourage invention in Santiago. ¡Viva la NeuroRevolucion! Tú vas a ver más español en nuestro sitio web en breve……
We are proud to have run many workshops in the Midwest, but co-founder Tim has longed to bring spikes to the Texas plains he recalls from his early years (he graduated from high school in El Paso and went to college in Austin). Thus, it was with great delight when Emily Verla Bovino, artist-in-residence with Fieldwork: Marfa
and graduate researcher at UC-San Diego, invited Backyard Brains to come down and help run a workshop at Marfa Independent High School
, deep in West Texas. To those not in the know, West Texas has the least light pollution in the lower 48 states, is terrific for astronomical observation, and is the “kind of Texas” you’d imagine if you’ve never visited.
photos by Backyard Brains
The Marfa High School visit ran over two days the week before Christmas. The school is rather small with a total enrollment of ~100 students, so in a marathon session facilitated by Emily and both the arts and physics teachers, Tim lectured to all four classes: Freshman at 8 AM, Sophomores at 9 AM, Juniors at 10 AM, and Seniors at 11 AM! He presented principles of neurotechnology interspersed with neural recording and stimulation experiments, closing with a brief discussion of entrepreneurship.
Following the lectures/demos on neuroscience, the workshop began in the afternoon, where with the organization of art teacher Ellie Meyer, the sixteen students of teacher Benjie Rosaldo’s Robotics Class learned about analog electronics and built their own SpikerBoxes. This took place over two afternoons, and after we identified and fixed the usual errors of shorts and the occasional incorrectly-placed resistors, we concluded with the cricket drug experiments and demo’s of the RoboRoach. Some of the students learning the art of ranching part-time, we noted the comfort level with the bugs was higher than other workshops we have run…
photos by Emily Verla Bovino
During the second day of the workshop, we also had a live radio interview along with students Zach Madrid and Eileen Cordova. You can listen to our interview with station manager Tom Michael on KRTS Marfa Public Radio below:
Notably, our spikes in the studio were transmitted live across the land! A running joke from our graduate school days, and even today, is the question we often receive: “Have you ever thought of making your [insert invention/technique here] wireless?” For example, a “wireless” SpikerBox would interface with a computer or smartphone without the need of a cable. We hereby announce that “Yes We Can. The SpikerBox can go wireless!” By hooking up the SpikerBox to Marfa Public Radio’s 5,000 Watt radio tower, Spikes were broadcast over 15,000 square miles to listeners in the West Texas desert. Contact us if you are interested in purchasing your own 5,000 Watt Radio Tower to accompany your SpikerBox, but be aware of certain FCC regulations
photo by Backyard Brains
During our stay in Marfa, Emily’s three month residency at Fieldwork: Marfa was at its end. Her artistic “fieldwork” involved research for an episode in the epic life-log of a fictional character that Emily calls the “hyperthymestic RK”. In the episode, the second of a never-ending series (contact her if you would like a screening of the first installment) the character RK travels to a heterotopian West Texas of the near future to participate as a human subject in clinical studies. Emphasis in these studies is on neural engineering, specifically optogenetics and nanorobotics. The scenario for episode two, a scenography and audio-drama which Emily is now in the process of editing, was presented at the local Honky Tonk Bar “Padre’s”, an initiative owned and run by the multihyphenate David Beebe. We ran some demos of spikes to set the scene for a story of unmanned border check points patrolled remotely with battling transgenic beetles and cockroaches engineered in neurotech land yacht flexlabs.
Photo by Backyard Brains
The whole visit was quite fruitful on both the art and science fronts, and we are exploring how to make our visit to West Texas a yearly Fall tradition. West Texas, with it’s unique geography and open skies, has an expansive effect on the mind that many brain-workers, including the cosmologists Donald Judd and Carl Sagan, have been attracted to. Thus, with Emily, we are brainstorming ways to begin a “Looking Outward, Look Inward” yearly fall workshop. West Texas already has the famous McDonald Observatory to understand the universe beyond, so why not also make the borderlands a place to understand the universe within?
Unique work spaces are abundant in West Texas and should appeal to the numerous DIYbio groups that have cropped up across the country in recent years. As the trip wound down, Emily arranged for Tim to run experiments in Padre’s vintage airstream land yacht on ranch land just a few miles west of the landmark Marfa eateries Mando’s and Alice’s Cafe. Though Tim didn’t get the chance to taste Mando’s chile rellenos or Alice’s huevos rancheros, he did eat a “Marfa burrito”, went hunting for “fragile cockroaches”on the banks of the Rio Grande and even got to debug student boards with unidentified circuit shorts in the airstream.
Stay tuned. ¡Bienvenidos al futuro! ¿Que descubrimientos de los picos, nos esperan en el porvenir?
Photo by Backyard Brains
Photo by Emily Verla Bovino
Acknowledgements: We thank the Burns Family, Marfa Studio for the Arts, Fieldwork: Marfa, The Marfa National Bank, and Padre’s Marfa for sponsorship and support.
We hereby announce our 2-Channel SpikerBox. What can you do with it? Why, you can measure the speed of spikes as they travel down a nerve, in a truly “backyard” preparation using Earthworms. See our full experiment write up on how to do it! How fast is a spike? Faster than a car, faster than a plane, faster than a speeding bullet? Find out!