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High School Students Hack Our RoboRoach Kit, Make it Better

We have been slowly rolling out our RoboRoach kits (we started shipping our beta units in late March 2011, and we have shipped 14 so far), and today we received some reports from the field. Robert Uglesich, a Professor at Cooper Union in Manhattan, used our RoboRoach kits this summer to teach high school students about microstimulation, analog electronics, and the neural basis of behavior. He reported today:

“I wanted to write to let you know that the summer program ended today and the students had a blast working with the RoboRoach kits.  These last few weeks they were so enthused that they were getting to campus and starting to work before I even came in.”

There was a brief write-up today in the New York Times, but, more interestingly, the students made their own website summarizing their results. Their chief findings were:

1) The cerci nerves adapt more slowly to the stimulation than the antenna nerves. Also, stimulating cerci enables forward motion (our current antennal prep only allows right and left).

2) Randomizing the stimulation to the antenna nerves by using music patterns (instead of the constant 55 Hz stimulation we have set on the circuit) causes habituation to occur more slowly as well.

Thus, a three channel stimulator, with more heterogeneous stimulation patterns, would enable a RoboRoach system with forward, left, and right turning control that adapts more slowly. Nice work students! Impressive! Can we join your lab?

Our current efforts on the RoboRoach are to make the circuit lighter and reduce assembly time. Our current production version (gen3) weighs 6.25 g, an improvement from our first (9 g) and second (8 g) prototypes. It still takes about 6 hours to build however, so we are researching circuit configurations and interconnects that take less time to assemble and test.

Backyard Brains welcomes its First Employees!

After a month of exhausting collective bargaining negotiations, the Backyard Brains labor union has emerged with a new deal which brings not only organic/locally-grown lettuce for the cockroaches plus two new soldering irons for production, but more importantly the addition of 4 new faces to the Backyard Brains team! Please join us in welcoming our newest (and first, mind you) employees.

Ashton Powell – Teacher/Educator. Ashton joins the team for the summer of 2011 to help build the curricula for High School teachers. One of our weakness has been supplying teachers with the tools they need to build a lesson plan around neuroscience and electrophysiology. Ashton has his Ph.D. in neuroscience and is currently a teacher at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics. As a previous customer of Backyard Brains, he has used the SpikerBox in his classrooms and challenged his students to design experiments. We look forward to the upcoming tools for teachers later this year!

Cristina Mezuk – Illustrator. Although we always pride ourself on our self-generated content, we are also aware that perhaps more detailed drawings may make things easier to understand. We were very lucky to find a local artist, Cristina Mezuk, to help us turn our initial drawings into professional illustrations. Cristina is a photographer and artist (you can check out the website of her work) that is helping us make our educational materials much more informative. See below for a few examples.

Zachary King – iPhone Developer. Zak comes to Backyard Brains via the Biomedical Engineering BME450 Design Class. Zak and his colleagues were working on an early prototype of the optogenetics kit that is still in development. Zak developed the iPhone interface and circuit to control the timing of a bright LED stimulus. He is currently working to improve the iPhone app written by Alex Wiltschko with some cool new features. Zak’s first update (version 1.7) will appear on the iTunes store in the weeks to come.

Nathan Dotz – Android Developer, Linux Hacker. You spoke, we listened. After all of our talk of being an open hardware and software company, we have heard your concerns about our lack of support for the open Android system. We are happy to have Nathan Dotz join our team to help us build an application for your Android mobile devices. As an talented hacker active in the All Hands Active Maker Space in Ann Arbor, Nathan is already really good at making hardware and software as cheap as possible. Nathan hopes to also develop a browser-based version of the app in the future.

Above: A tale of two platforms. What makes them different makes them great.

Backyard Brains sells 500th SpikerBox, is awarded NIH Grant, and lowers prices for summer

We began distributing SpikerBoxes on April 8th, 2010, and we are proud to announce that on June 15th, 2011, we shipped our 500th SpikerBox! The proud owner is a high school teacher in Minnesota who ordered 12 “Bags of Parts” for students to build and experiment with this summer. You can see our complete user breakdown on our finance page and map. In short, of the 510 SpikerBoxes we have shipped to 183 unique customers, 218 have been preassembled by us, and 292 have been where users build the SpikerBox themselves.

This operation has been a labor of love for us (working out of our living rooms and mother-in-law’s basement), and after 2.5 years of plugging away, we announce we are now ready to expand our team. We were recently awarded an NIMH SBIR grant: “Bringing Neurophysiology into Secondary Schools” to allow us to professionalize all our educational materials as well as build some new prototypes. We are currently recruiting to add a software developer and educator to our team. We thank the U.S. National Government for believing in our mission, and, of course, you the taxpayer!

And we want to thank you with more than a kind word. For the summer, we announce our first sale. The SpikerBox and Bag of Parts prices have now been lowered 10% to get neurophysiology into the hands of more and more people. We shall keep experimenting with production techniques to continue making neuroscience inquiry as affordable as possible.

To the NeuroRevolution!

-Tim & Greg