Using Variable Natural Environment Brain-Computer Interface Stimuli for Real-time Humanoid Robot Navigation

Using Variable Natural Environment Brain-Computer Interface Stimuli for Real-time Humanoid Robot Navigation

Nik Khadijah Nik Aznan, Jason D. Connolly, Noura Al Moubayed and Toby P. Breckon Department of Computer Science, Durham University, Durham, UK.Department of Psychology, Durham University, Durham, UK.Department of Engineering, Durham University, Durham, UK.

This paper addresses the challenge of humanoid robot teleoperation in a natural indoor environment via a Brain-Computer Interface (BCI). We leverage deep Convolutional Neural Network (CNN) based image and signal understanding to facilitate both real-time object detection and dry-Electroencephalography (EEG) based human cortical brain bio-signal decoding. We employ recent advances in dry-EEG technology to stream and collect the cortical waveforms from subjects while the subjects fixate on variable Steady-State Visual Evoked Potential (SSVEP) stimuli generated directly from the environment the robot is navigating. To these ends, we propose the use of novel variable BCI stimuli by utilising the real-time video streamed via the on-board robot camera as visual input for SSVEP where the CNN detected natural scene objects are altered and flickered with differing frequencies (10Hz, 12Hz and 15Hz). These stimuli are not akin to traditional stimuli - as both the dimensions of the flicker regions and their on-screen position changes depending on the scene objects detected in the scene. On-screen object selection via dry-EEG enabled SSVEP in this way, facilitates the on-line decoding of human cortical brain signals via a secondary CNN approach into teleoperation robot commands (approach object, move in a specific direction: right, left or back). This SSVEP decoding model is trained via a priori offline experimental data in which very similar visual input is present for all subjects. The resulting offline classification demonstrates extremely high performance and with mean accuracies of 96% and 90% for the real-time robot navigation experiment across multiple test subjects.

I Introduction

Teleoperation or telepresence is a field within robotics which has been widely utilised for different applications which allows humans to remotely control robots, either whilst being present within the same location, or remotely via the internet [1]. In this work, a humanoid robot will be used as teleoperational remote control interface, allowing a human to navigate the robot via the use of BCI-based cortical brain bio-signals [2]. This application can be used widely, for example by severely disabled people as an alternative communication platform with the robot without any actual physical movement [3].

A Brain-Computer Interface is a system that provides a communication and control medium between human cortical signals and external devices [4]. One of the primary aims of BCI is to assist or to be used by patients with Complete Locked-In Syndrome in which the end user cannot move or communicate due to paralysis, yet is cognitively intact and can therefore make real, tangible and informed decisions [2].

In order to gather the cortical signals from an actual human, a non-invasive dry-EEG will be used. EEG is a technique where electrodes or sensors are placed on the scalp to capture electrical activity of the brain without the need to implant them directly into the brain, such as invasive microelectrode arrays [5]. We utilise the Cognionics Inc. (San Diego, USA) Quick-20 dry-EEG Headset that requires no conductive gel and has the additional benefit of being a wireless device as compared to traditional wet-EEG [6, 7]. The wet-EEG requires the cumbersome application of conductive gel in order to lower the impedance values - these measurements represent how usable the connectivity is between the electrodes and the scalp [8]. It is an alternative approach used to improve the usability of EEG within a BCI context via the elimination of messy and cumbersome conductive gel that is required for the wet-EEG approach [9].

This work explores the creation of a BCI-based application to accurately navigate a humanoid robot in an open environment via the above noted dry-EEG headset. To develop this effectively, we employ the features available from the humanoid robot such as streaming the real-time video from the robot as visual input for the SSVEP stimuli. SSVEP is a type of stimulus-evoked neurophysiological response induced simply via subject fixation (or even just via peripheral attention) on visual stimuli and requires almost no a priori user training [10, 11, 12]. The human cortical signals in the primary visual areas oscillate when visually evoked via these stimuli by a continuously fluctuating sinusoidal cycle [13, 14]. In addition, we use NAO, a humanoid robot which is equipped with cameras and programmable movement and behavioural features such that different commands can be interpreted to navigate the robot to move toward the object of participant visual and cognitive interest [15].

In this paper, we propose a novel variable dry-EEG enabled BCI stimuli for robot navigation utilising a pre-trained object detection neural network. We perform object detection in real-time derived from the incoming video stream from the robot’s camera. Our key idea is to make the SSVEP stimuli more natural to the user as the stimuli (or in our case, objects) will be presented in the context of the real-world scene the robot is currently navigating. Unlike previous stimuli, in this work the size of each SSVEP flicker region depends on the physical dimensions of the object detected [6, 16, 10]. The detected object pixel regions are flickered at differing on screen frequencies (10, 12, 15 Hz) and the decoded EEG signals are used to navigate the robot to walk towards objects based on the objects selected by the subject (user) via the SSVEP interface.

To perform the dry-EEG signal decoding we use our CNN architecture, detailed here [17], to differentiate between EEG signals by extracting unique features across multiple layers of convolutional transformation optimised over a set of training data [18]. This model is used to classify real-time dry-EEG signals before sending the command to navigate the robot towards the scene object the subject has selected [19].

Following standard practice in the BCI literature, we evaluate the performance of our work by testing the classified training dataset on real-time humanoid navigation using classification accuracy and Information Transfer Rate (ITR) as performance metrics - the latter representing a quantitative measure of the speed of BCI information transfer [2].

In summary, the major contributions of this paper are:

  • Use of a novel variable position and size SSVEP BCI stimuli based on using object detection pixel regions identified in real-time within the live video stream image from a teleoperated humanoid robot traversing a real-world, natural environment.

  • An offline dry-EEG enabled SSVEP BCI signal decoding (classification) result achieving mean accuracy of 96% with the use of variable stimuli size and on-screen stimuli positioning (the first such study to accomplish this).

  • Demonstrable real-time BCI teleoperation of a humanoid robot, based on the use of naturally occurring in-scene stimuli, with a peak mean accuracy of 90% and ITR of 16.8 bits per minute (bpm) when evaluated over multiple test subjects (teleoperation users).

Ii Related Work

There have been many prior studies utilising humanoid robots with EEG signals for various BCI applications. In this section we will focus on the studies using SSVEP within this context.

The work of [15] proposed behaviour-based SSVEP to control a telepresence humanoid robot to walk in cluttered environment to approach and pick up a target. They controlled the robot by classifying 4 sets of movements with a total of fourteen behaviours of the robot. One visual stimuli is used to select the behaviour set and the remainder are used to encode the behaviours. The user interface of the system consists of five fixed stimuli symbols (five frequency values), a display for a live video feedback and a display for the current posture of the robot. The task completed with an average success rate of 88, an average response time of 3.48 s and an average ITR of 27.3 bpm.

Similar research has been carried out using SSVEP stimuli to control robot like behaviour in [10] and [16] in which these authors gain used fixed size and position stimuli symbols with differing frequencies that indicate different directions for the robot to move toward. In [10] the authors controlled a mobile robot by using 3 different SSVEP frequencies by moving forward or turning to the left or right in order to avoid the obstacles. The stimuli in [16] consisted of four fixed flickering boxes where each frequency was used to command a mobile robot (forward, backward, turn counter-clockwise/clockwise) to navigate the robot through a maze path.

There are two notable studies that have integrated object detection and recognition [3, 20]. In [3], the authors used seven different frequencies to navigate a mobile robot to a storage rack to grasp an object and delivered into a dustbin with an average mean accuracy of 89.4%. The approach employed an AdaBoost algorithm with Haar features to recognise three objects on the rack for subjects to choose. However, the recognised objects were not flickered as stimuli - instead, there were separate fixed stimuli designed with three different frequencies corresponding to each object.

The authors in [20] used SSVEP with hybrid-mask feature in which a 3D textured model were rendered and flickered on certain scene objects. In this case, three similar cans which are recognised offline. Subjects for this study teleoperated a humanoid robot HRP-2 (located in Japan from Italy) to control the robot to grasp a can from a table and navigate the robot to a second table where the robot need to drop the can on a marked target.

In this study, taking advantage of the on-board camera on our humanoid robot and the high-performance scene object detection model of [21], we instead use variable BCI stimuli, embedded within the scene video feed, by flickering the flexible size detected object pixel regions with differing SSVEP frequencies. This is perform in the real-time as the humanoid robot navigated a natural indoor environment. In contrast to earlier work [15, 10, 16, 3, 20], our stimuli vary both in terms of pixel pattern, size and on-screen position in-conjunction with the changing nature of the environment the robot is navigating through.

Iii Methodology

In this section, we present the four primary experimental components; variable BCI stimuli, streaming dry-EEG signals, EEG signal classification and robot navigation. The overall setup and data flow of the experiment is shown in Figure 1.

Fig. 1: Experimental setup

We use the on-board camera to stream video from the natural environment to a monitor display in front of the BCI subject (user). Using the CNN-based object detection model of [21], detected scene objects are identified and flickered with a unique on-screen SSVEP frequency (from set: 10Hz, 12Hz, 15Hz). EEG signals from the subject are streamed using the dry-EEG headset whilst they fixate on a flickering on-screen scene object. A CNN pre-trained on an a priori offline dataset is then used as inference to decode these EEG signals in real-time. This prediction is used to navigate the robot to move towards the corresponding scene object the subject is fixated upon.

Iii-a Variable BCI Stimuli

In order to translate the cortical signals, we use SSVEP as the neurophysiological brain response for subjects. The stimuli are embedded into the real-time video streaming from the on-board robot camera (RGB colour, resolution: 1280960). Based on pre-trained object detection, we flicker the on-screen display frequency of objects by rendering black/white polygon boxes on top of the objects with display frequency modulations of 10, 12 and 15 Hz [14].

In the present paper, we use the pre-trained Single Shot MultiBox (SSD) Object Detector CNN [21]. This CNN was trained by using the 12 objects class from the COCO dataset [22]. We present the stimuli using[23] on a 60Hz refresh rate LCD monitor.

Fig. 2: Variable BCI stimuli based on the pre-trained object detection

The teleoperation interface display alternates between this detected object flickering and navigational arrow flickering one after another as illustrated in Figure 2. The additional use of the navigational arrow stimuli enables the subject to navigate the robot when there is no new object detected within the scene, for example, when the robot is too close to the previously subject (user) selected object.

Iii-B Dry-EEG Signal Streaming

We use the Cognionics Inc. Quick-20 20-channel dry-EEG headset to stream the cortical signals from three subjects (S01, S02, S03) whilst each subject is sat in front the variable SSVEP stimuli. The dry-EEG headset provides 19 channels and A2, reference and ground as in Figure 3 with a 10-20 compliant sensor layout (or an international standard for reproducible sensor placement across different EEG experiments [7]).

Fig. 3: The location of the electrodes of dry-EEG headset highlighted in blue

This portable and wireless headset is straightforward and easy-to-use as it does not require any skin preparation prior to use nor no conductive gel (as wet-EEG does).

During the experiments, we stream the signals over nine sensors; parietal and occipital cortex (P7, P3, Pz, P4, P8, O1 and O2) [4, 6, 14], frontal centre (Fz) and A2 reference at 500 Hz sampling rate for three seconds per trial. The odd numbers represent the left hemisphere of the brain and the even numbers represent the right hemisphere of the brain (see Figure 3).

The dry-EEG headset requires proprietary data acquisition software, used to measure impedance values before use to ensure optimal-quality dry-EEG signals. In addition it streams the data from the headset to a computer and allows networked data access to send the data streaming over the network (between two different computers, for example).

Iii-C EEG Signals Classification

To decode the dry-EEG signals efficiently in order to ensure effective teleoperation of the robot, we use our deep CNN architecture of [17] for signal to object/motion label classification.

During the offline experiments, subjects attend to one of the flickering stimuli. The cortical brain signals from each subject are collected for 40 experimental trials per SSVEP class to form the offline a prior traning sets or training the CNN model.

We train a SSVEP Convolutional Unit (SCU) CNN architecture [17], comprising of a 1D convolutional layer, batch normalization and max pooling ( Detailed in Figure 4) by using the offline a priori experimental datasets. We first bandpass filter the incoming data between 9 to 100 Hz in order to reduce undesired high or low frequencies that are not of interest in this work. The filtered signals which consist of nine input channels are transformed by using a large initial convolutional filter to capture the frequencies we are interested in classifying in the dry-EEG data. The SCU CNN model is trained using backpropagation [24].

Fig. 4: The 1D CNN architecture used to classify the EEG signals for both offline dataset and real-time experiments (SCU, highlighted in pink)

For this training, the key hyperparameters, initially chosen via a grid-search over a validation set, are L2 weight decay scaling 0.004, dropout level 0.5, convolution kernel size 110, kernel stride 4, maxpool kernel size 2, categorical cross entropy as the optimisation function, ADAM gradient descent algorithm [25] and ReLU as the activation function on all hidden layers.

Iii-D Robot Navigation

The experiment begins with the robot facing a scene containing objects which are detected to generate on-screen SSVEP stimuli pixel regions as previously outlined. The subject (teleoperation user) fixates on one particular object from which robot navigation is performed using the high level mobility functions of the NAO humanoid robot platform (Figure 2), based on the decoding of the corresponding SSVEP signals by the pre-trained SCU CNN model (Explored in Section III-C).

Once these BCI signals are classified as a selected scene object by the subject (user), we then calculate the required robot motion trajectory. As we cannot acquire depth information directly from the monocular camera on the robot, we acquire the distance and the angle of view of the chosen object following the photogrammetric approach of [26]. As such, the distance of the object can be calculated as:


where is the distance in metres, is the focal length in pixels, is the object height in metres and is the image height in pixels, as:


where is height of the object in the image (pixels), is the focal length in metres and is the sensor height in metres.

The angle of view the object from the camera in radian based on the horizontal position x of the image in pixel can be calculated as follows:

Fig. 5: Flowchart of the real-time experiment

When the robot navigates within a given distance and angle trajectory of the subject selected object, the BCI on-screen interface display alternates to the navigational arrow display (left, right, backwards – Figure 2) using the specific SSVEP frequencies of 10, 12 and 15 Hz. This frequencies intend to facilitate robot motion at 90 degree turns left/right or an 180 degree about turn. Subjects similarly attend to one of these SSVEP stimuli which, once decoded by the SCU CNN model, facilitate general robot motion in the environment until further scene objects are detected within the scene traversal. A flow diagram the operation of the real-time experimental teleoperation of the NAO robot through the environment in this alternating object-stimuli, navigational-stimuli manner is presented in Figure 5.

The experimental navigation plan used during the real-time experiments presented in this study is shown in Figure 6. Under these conditions, we repeat the experimental episode five times per subject to demonstrate the repeatability of our approach.

Fig. 6: Navigation plan for real-time experiment

Iv Results and Discussion

In this section, we present the results from the offline classification and the real-time experiment classification using the metrics of classification accuracy and Information Transfer Rate (ITR) in bits per minute (bpm).

Iv-a Offline Statistical Performance

The result for the classification accuracy and the ITR of the offline experiment are presented in Table I. ITR is the speed of BCI in term of bit rate transfer which is the amount of the information transfer by a system per minute [2].

Subject S01 S02 S03
Accuracy 0.960.02 0.800.09 0.750.12
ITR (bpm) 23.900.72 12.160.95 9.610.89
TABLE I: Mean accuracy and ITR with standard deviation for offline classification over 10-fold cross validation.

ITR is the suitable BCI performance metric, as a high ITR is dependent upon high accuracy. The ITR is calculated as in [20]:


where T is the time taken to classify a trial in minutes and B is the bits per trial:


where N is the number of possible selections (N = 3) and P is the correct selection accuracy.

For the offline experiment, the time taken is based on the total flickering time per trial (3 seconds) plus the average of time the classifier takes to train and classify a trial. The data we collect during the offline experimental phase is used to train the model for the real-time. However, in order to demonstrate statistical performance of our SCU CNN architecture on this task, we present mean accuracy over 10-fold cross validation per subject. This is used as the P value to calculate the B (Equation 5).

Iv-B On-line Real-time Performance

(a) Real-time classification on subject S01
(b) Real-time classification on subject S02
(c) Real-time classification on subject S03
Fig. 7: Confusion matrices for the classification on the real-time EEG signal during the robot navigation (Maximal result being accuracy = 1.0 in the matrix diagonals).

The results of the on-line experimental phase are presented in Table II where we can see the correlation between the result from both experiments. Overall, the results demonstrate extremely high accuracy and for all of the subjects tested.

Subject S01 S02 S03
Experiment 1 1.00 1.00 1.00
Experiment 2 1.00 0.83 0.50
Experiment 3 0.83 0.83 0.83
Experiment 4 0.83 1.00 1.00
Experiment 5 0.83 0.67 0.67
Mean Accuracy 0.900.08 0.870.12 0.800.19
Mean ITR (bpm) 16.80.10 15.60.12 13.20.16
TABLE II: Accuracy for each experiment and mean accuracy and ITR and standard deviation for real-time classification

Our results demonstrates a strong statistical performance, with a mean accuracy of 0.85 across subjects. This is comparable to [15] which obtained 0.88 accuracy, despite our work using a variable SSVEP stimuli. As ITR represents the speed of the real-time information transfer from stimuli to motion command generation, the time taken is measured from the beginning of a stimuli flashing until getting a prediction. We can thus improve the ITR further via reducing the flickering time during the real-time experiment.

Figure 7 represents the confusion matrices per-class for the real-time classification and highlights overall good accuracy across all classes for all three subjects (users) although the middle class (12 Hz) is harder to classify than the rest of the classes.

Figure 8 illustrates the real-time experimental environment such as the view from the robot and the robot approaching an object. The angle of direction from the robot to the selected objects can vary from one experiment to another, because the calculation of distance and direction is based on the bounding box from the object detection and the angle of view of an object on the plane. The detected bounding box for the scene object can vary and the angle of view of an object can change with the slightest move of either the robot or the robot head (where the camera is located).

Fig. 8: Sample of humanoid robot navigation during a real-time experiment

V Conclusion

In this work, we present a number of novel contributions spanning the use of variable SSVEP stimuli (pattern, size, shape) as an enabler to future telepresence BCI applications in a real-world natural environment. We integrate recent advances in the use of deep CNN architectures for both scene object detection and dry-EEG bio-signal decoding. Within this context, we develop a novel SSVEP interface to flicker the on-screen frequency of naturally occurring objects detected within the scene, as seen from the on-board camera of a teleoperated robot, and decode these dry-EEG brain-based bio-signals based on the frequency of the visual fixation detected to navigate the robot within the scene. Uniquely, we train and utilize a common CNN model (SCU, Figure 4) for use with SSVEP stimuli that varying in size, on-screen position and internal (pixel pattern) throughout the duration of the experiment, significantly advancing such decoding generality against prior work in the field [3, 20]. Our evaluation is presented in terms of accuracy and ITR, both on the a priori experimental training set used for the off-line training phase (via cross validation) and the on-line real-time teleoperated navigation of a humanoid robot through a natural indoor environment. The introduction of these highly novel and variable BCI SSVEP stimuli, based on scene object occurrence, demonstrates adaptable BCI-driven robot teleoperation within a natural environment (without scene markers and alike). Strong statistical classification performance is observed, comparable to and often exceeding those reported in the general BCI literature [15], despite the introduction of the serious challenges associated with variable SSVEP stimuli.

Future work will look to improve generalisation performance over additional test subjects, increase scene complexity and teleoperative duration as well as considering aspects of robot interaction with the environment.


The authors would like to thank the Ministry of Higher Education Malaysia and Technical University of Malaysia Malacca (UTeM) as the sponsors of the first author.


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