Innovator: Ruggero Scorcioni's App Uses Brain Waves to Block Calls

Screening Calls With Perked Ears
Photograph by Brian Stevens for Bloomberg Businessweek

Neuroscientist and former software engineer Ruggero Scorcioni found himself consistently distracted by the phone while he was trying to work. “If I’m busy coding or thinking about research and have phone calls coming in, it’s hard to get back into the same mental state,” says Scorcioni, 42. “Maybe you had a great idea, but then it’s gone.” In January, on a whim, he entered an AT&T app-development hackathon, and came up with a solution.

His idea was sparked by a gift to participants: a cat-ear headset built by Neuro-wear with sensors that track the wearer’s brain waves and perk up fluffy motorized ears during periods of high brain activity. Scorcioni, who’d just finished a fellowship at the Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla, Calif., decided to hack the headset to create an app that blocks incoming calls when the receiver is concentrating. With 26 hours to complete the hackathon, he worked until the last minute, pausing only for two hours of sleep and a shower. That labor produced a working prototype of Good Times, which analyzes real-time brain wave data from the headset, then sends commands to AT&T’s telephone network to either permit or block incoming calls. Blocked callers are redirected to an automated message asking them to try again later. Scorcioni describes the app as “a mentally activated ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign.”

The Good Times prototype won Scorcioni AT&T’s $30,000 hackathon grand prize. “It looks simple, but what he accomplished is actually quite complicated,” says Abhi Ingle, vice president for ecosystem and innovation at AT&T Services, noting that the design required Scorcioni to integrate several programming interfaces. The neuroscientist used his prize money to found a one-man startup, Brainyno, and in the past few months coded a beta version of Good Times. “There is a great market potential for these kinds of apps,” says New York University computer science professor Chris Bregler, though he says brain-computer interface technology is in its infancy.

Scorcioni, who grew up in the small town of Serramazzoni in Italy’s Apennine Mountains, spent several years coding for companies including IBM before deciding to study neuroscience at age 29. He became obsessed with the brain’s secrets after his grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. While pursuing his doctorate at George Mason University, he helped develop a computer program that shows how brain cells change shape as a result of events such as injury or illness.

Scorcioni plans to sell Good Times to corporate clients but doesn’t yet have a launch date. For now, he’s looking for more backers and fine-tuning the app. He’s added a feature that lets users see representations of their brain waves. By launch, he says, the app will learn from feedback to recognize the level of concentration at which users want calls filtered. He says e-mail filtering is a logical next step. “I think eventually everyone is going to wear one,” Scorcioni says, holding up the cat-ear headset. “Of course, it won’t look as crazy as this.”