Daily report: Visiting NeuroSky and Alcatraz

This monday brings a fresh start of a new week. After an intense evening at the San Francisco 49ers stadium yesterday evening, most of the group went to bed early. At 8:00 breakfast was served in the basement of the hostel. The committee and some volunteers had been very busy baking pancakes for the whole group. Kudo's to them! After a decent breakfast, the group gathered at the front entrance of the hostel at about 8:20, after which we boarded the bus to be on our way to NeuroSky in San Jose (about a 1,5 hour drive). For the first time the dress code of the company visit was casual. This mainly had to do with the fact that most participants took their suit to the dry cleaners yesterday, which hadn't finished them in time. Some participants took the word 'casual' a little too literally; even though the appropriate clothing was a pair of jeans, a blouse and decent shoes Mattijs took this opportunity to wear shorts, a t-shirt, a vest and his favorite sports shoes. Well, at least he is comfortable.

NeuroSky is a privately owned company that produces biosensor technology for the consumer market, with a focus on devices for brain-computer interfacing (BSI). The company has offices in China, Hong Kong and Korea, but its head office is located at the heart of Silicon Valley in San Jose, California. We arrived a little early, so there was some time to grab a cup of coffee at a cafe next to NeuroSky's office building. Thirty minutes later we took the elevator to the ninth floor, where NeuroSky resides. The head of communications welcomed us and we were invited to sit in the conference room to attend a presentation about the company.

The main product of NeuroSky is a headset called MindSet that uses dry sensors to detect brain activity signals and convert them to digital signals. Two main algorithms that measure attention and mediation are used to filter the signal. The intention of this headset is to be easy, affordable and fun. Therefore the headset is mainly used in toys and games, but some other existing applications are Iphone applications and sports training. NeuroSky only ships the headset with the algorithms and some basic games, most of the applications are developed by the customers themselves.

After the presentation there was some room for demo's. The office next door was filled with some games and applications. There was a basic simulator that graphically showed mediation and attention levels of the user that was wearing the MindSet headset. It was funny to see how these values change just by thinking of different things.

The UMI Star Wars Force Trainer is a game for children that uses the MindSet headset. It allows the player to move a ball up and down in a tube by concentrating. Some participants had a go, most of them had difficulty keeping the ball at a certain level. Ronald seemed to be a real mindcontroller, he had absolute control over the ball and was titled Jedi Master.

Another game was MindFlex. MindFlex allows the player to move a ball through several obstacles by concentrating. This game was a little easier. The employee of NeuroSky that was responsible for beta testing presented us with the latest MindSet headset that is to be released in november. Some participants were asked their opinion and were invited to test some simple applications. A group photo at the entrance of the NeuroSky offices ended the visit.

After the visit, the whole group had lunch at the cafe in the building next door. Some healthy sandwiches and salads filled our stomachs, preparing us for the bus ride to Fishermans Warf, part of the harbor of San Francisco.

At the warf, we had 2 hours to spend before we were going to eat at a surf 'n turf restaurant at Pier 39. Fishermans Warf is a beautiful piece of San Francisco with a lot of piers with restaurants, shops and (navy) boats. The weather was good (27 degrees Celcius), so it was really nice to walk around or grab a terrace.

At half 16:30 we gathered at the restaurant and had some fish & chips, burgers or salads. After dinner we walked to pier 33, where the boat to Alcatraz Island departed. At the time of departure it was starting to get dark, which provided a spectacular view of the coast of San Francisco from the boat. The boat circled around the island once and then docked.

When we arrived at Alcatraz, we were split into big groups. A guide told us some story about an attempted escape from an inmate several years ago as we walked up the hill to the prison blocks. At the entrance of the prison blocks we were given an audio device and headset, which contained the narrative for a 45 minute audio tour around the building. It was amazing to see the cell blocks and hear the stories of officers and inmates, especially at night (it gives you an extra creepy feeling). There was an extended talk about many of the attempted escapes from the Rock. Only three escapees were never found again, but it's not sure whether their escape was actually successful (they might have died trying). After the audio tour we were given an option to join one of 3 talks that were held by the guides. We chose the 'Sound of the Slammer' tour, a talk that ended with all the cells in the whole cellblock opening and closing. What a sound!

At 21:25 the boat departed from Alcatraz Island to the mainland, the end of a great tour. We took the cable car (it's like a rollercoaster through town) back to the hostel.


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