Mann Lab Jam: The 12-Hour Interview


Mann Lab, Oct. 10, 2019

A friend (Kelvin) and I are trying to get positions in Steve Mann’s lab. His interview process involves a “jam” session where the interviewee(s) must make something with Dr. Mann and company in one afternoon/night that impresses them. This is an account/log of the work that has gone into that.

The Idea

We need to come in with an idea to kick off the process. Last night Kelvin and I brainstormed some ideas, including an idea to make a brain-controlled keyboard setup. The idea is to automate the parameters of the synth with different frequency bands of EEG that reflect the general moods/feelings that are correlated with each frequency band (Wikipedia).

Since Mann is a hardware/electrical engineering focused person, we wanted to also make it a bit more tactile. So, we are going to try and connect the MIDI keyboard to his hydraulophone as well to make a hybrid-water-synth organ that’s controlled by your mind.

How To Start?

I’ve done some EEG stuff in the past, but I’ve never done live-processing like this. Similarly, I’ve made some music with parameterized synths, but have never coded one from scratch. I’m going to have to figure out how to do that in the next ~4 hours… I’ll also need to figure out how to get MIDI input to work with Python, but that should hopefully be pretty easy.

Meanwhile, Kelvin will be managing the electrical/mechanical aspects of controlling the hydraulophone based on the outputs of my program.

I spent a good handful of hours researching and implementing Python modules I could string together to make a good, live-adjustable synth that could take in general inputs from an EEG to adjust its parameters. I may build more on the project later, but fate had different plans for the interview itself.

The Interview (“Jam Session”)

When I arrived at Mann Lab with Kelvin, I was relieved by the many Muse headsets lying around, and even the Midi keyboard I saw under the mountains of inventions.

Long exposure of Kelvin and I with a Sequential Wave Imprinting Machine (SWIM), one of Mann’s childhood inventions.

The jam session started with some introductions and descriptions of everyone’s specialties. Then it was time for the tour of the lab. The 8,000 square foot space is absolutely stuffed with inventions. From fitness gadgets to EM wave visualizers, from autonomous wheelchairs to sensory deprivation tanks, it was all there. There was a sort of frenetic buzz about the place, and the feeling that every idea ought to be tried NOW, no matter how crazy.

Since the lab was on a paper deadline, Kelvin was quickly assigned some fabrication work on the main apparatus while I was to get my hands dirty with some previous lab members’ EEG scanning code.


Over the course of the evening, we periodically worked, talked with Mann, talked with the other lab members, and worked some more. At about 8:30, the rest of the team began to leave, and we ended with an extremely diverse and enlightening in-depth chat with Dr. Mann. The day ended with an invite to work further on the paper and some further radial SWIM observation.

The lab is one of the most unique and multidisciplinary places I have ever been, and Dr. Mann is an extremely accomplished inventor and engineer. It’s a place I hope I can keep pace with, and a place where I hope I can contribute meaningfully. No matter what, the jam session was a fantastic eye-opening experience into the crazy world of Mann lab.