Mens Amplio is a Burning Man project that turns your thoughts into pyrotechnics

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Attention neuroscience nerds, pyromaniacs, and makers: This is the Burning Man project for you. The Mens Amplio (Latin for "expanding your mind") is a massive 15-foot-tall human head sculpture dreamed up by designer Don Cain. Inside of this oversized head is a brain made out of warped pipes with an LED brain stem that blinks to life when it thinks. Oh, and it shoots fire out of its noggin too.

The Mens Amplio—a project in the works at American Steel Studios' massive six-acre makerspace in Oakland, CA—caught my eye simply because it was an interactive art installation you can hook your brain up to. The Department of Spontaneous Combustion (DSC), the folks building the big head, got their hands on a retired EEG headset, which scans your brain activity to create a readout of your mental and emotional state. The Mens Amplio uses this EEG machine to translate your brainwaves into a larger-than-life light-and-fire show.

It’s like the metaphorical light bulb that comes on in your head when you have an idea, except taken to a ridiculous level. Ridiculous in the best possible way, that is.

When I saw the project, the brain was still in the midst being reassembled for the second time.
A small-scale model of the final project build.

“People have been hooking up flame effects to a computer for almost a decade if not more. This is the first one ever that’s been connected to a Brain reading device," said Karen Cusolito, the founder of American Steel Studios and an artist who builds 30-foot-tall steel sculptures with some regularly.

Aaron Scott of DSC chirped in: “It’s freaking cool, and our programmers have had it hooked it into stuff and they’ve been working on code for it. Apparently, a good half of their time ends up just being playing with it as much as actively developing code, which is good because the whole thing is supposed to be really interactive and fun to use.”

Playing with fire.

For the interactive bit of this super-sized brain-inspired contraption (as if a giant device that reacts to your brainwaves isn't interactive enough), the Mens Amplio also has an artificial brain stem that sort of resembles branches on a tree. The DSC team says it designed the faux brainstem to look and act like the axons in your brain, which serve as nerve fibers that carry electrical signals through your grey matter. Instead of shooting electricity, though, it turns a tree of neon-colored tubes into a lightshow. It also has a few flame effects that go off when you are in just the right mindset, just to add an added bit of flair (or flare, for that matter).

Mens Amplio/Twitter
The inner “brain stem” resembles a tree branch.

But that’s not the only new piece of tech that the Mens Amplio has running under its cap. It also uses a Raspberry Pi and a few Arduino boards to translate all your mental activity into a into patterns of light and fire that mimic the images of clinical brain scans in real time.

According to Scott, the maker movement has commoditized a lot of the computer components needed to make the Mens Amplio work, making it cheaper as well as easier to create projects like this. “We’re running this whole thing off a raspberry Pi which is 35 bucks and without that we’d be looking at a full on computer system, and that’s a whole lot harder to protect out there,” he explained.

Scott continued, adding: “It would cost a lot more money and so the maker folks have really taken a lot of the stuff that used to be very difficult and expensive, and turned it into things that are reasonably priced and easy to use.”

After the Mens Amplio spends some time on the Playa in the Black Rock Desert, it won’t be burned like many of the great Burning Man art projects are. Instead, the project, which was funded by an Honorarium grant (the event organizers help fund some of the art installations through money taken out of ticket sales) and a successful Indigogo campaign, will tour schools in the San Francisco Bay Area so students can see the massive art piece and get an interactive lesson in how the brain works.

Larry Harvey, Founder of Burning Man, chimed in: “It used to be the trend, and people still have the idea that all the art is burned. Well, there is still a lot of burning art, but more and more of the art goes back into the world, which is good.”

Jeff Bush/Facebook
Almost there...

Aaron Scott agrees. “I’m really excited [that] we will be able to take something they helped us to build and take it out to schools,” Aaron said gleefully. As he puts it, the project “helps a whole lot of other people because they take care of a lot artists, and it’s nice if we can give something back to them.”

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