fb-pixelThis MIT post-doc created a sorting hat like the one from ‘Harry Potter’ - The Boston Globe Skip to main content

This MIT post-doc created a sorting hat like the one from ‘Harry Potter’

Nataliya Kosmyna created a “Thinking Cap” that looks like the Sorting Hat from the popular “Harry Potter” series. The project will be featured at an expo at MIT on Tuesday.Judith Sirera i Pulido

You don’t have to step through Platform 9 3/4 to find out which Hogwarts house is most suitable for your personality.

In fact, you don’t even need to be a wizard — because the magic (OK, it’s actually high-tech science) behind the fanciful sorting hat from the “Harry Potter” series can be found at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Nataliya Kosmyna, a post-doc student at the MIT Media Lab, has created what she calls the “Thinking Cap,” a device made up of noninvasive electrodes that can capture a person’s brain activity and then use machine learning to detect and analyze what they’re imagining in real-time.


The cap is one of several inventions that will be featured at Tuesday’s MIT Computing Expo, an event highlighting innovative projects from the fields of robotics, artificial intelligence, health care, and renewable energy, according to organizers.

The expo takes place from 2-4:30 p.m. and is part of the school’s three-day celebration of the new MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing.

The creators behind some of the projects will host presentations and give demonstrations.

That includes Kosmyna, who will test her Thinking Cap for those who want to see it in action.

The main purpose of the Thinking Cap, which is still under development, is to help students build self-esteem and improve their academic performance, a feat accomplished using EEG-based Brain-Computer Interfaces.

But Kosmyna added a Harry Potter element to it to make it more whimsical and inviting.

“It’s a ‘magic’ object that kids know what it is, and what it does,” said Kosmyna, who has a PhD in computer science. “This kind of Hollywood touch works very well.”

The hat itself is just a costume prop she purchased for $29.99 on Amazon, she said, and then draped over the 14 electrodes that make up the actual device worn on a person’s head. Kosmyna created the algorithm and software that make it all work.


For the sorting aspect, Kosmyna turned to Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling’s Pottermore.com, which hosts a multiple-choice “sorting ceremony” test to classify fans into Hogwarts dormitories.

Before a user can find out which house they’d live in using the Thinking Cap, Kosmyna first conducts a process called “phase training,” where she shows a participant a series of images and asks them to imagine those objects.

“When you visualize an object, in your brain there are different frequencies and activity that we can pick up” with the device, she said. “There is no magic in it, it’s pure neuroscience.”

Once that process is complete, the cap itself will then ask the user — its voice is male — a series of binary questions based on the objects Kosmyna showed the participant beforehand.

Without the person saying a word, the Thinking Cap can determine which of the two choices the person is thinking about. The answers are then used to determine which Hogwarts house they would be part of.

“The hat will tell you, ‘Oh, you are Gryffindor!’ ” Kosmyna said. “It will not only tell you the house, but what you are actually thinking about — and you don’t need to pronounce a single word. You just need to be very focused.”

An expedited version of the cap’s capabilities will be shown at Tuesday’s event, along with a second project Kosmyna has been working on. Unfortunately, because the Hogwarts test takes a bit longer to go through, it won’t be part of the demonstration.


Still, Kosmyna wants people to try out the Thinking Cap and see how it works, she said.

So, which Hogwarts House does Kosmyna belong to?

“Gryffindor,” she said, laughing — the house that “most values the virtues of courage, bravery and determination,” according to Pottermore.com.

“But the thing is, I’m biased,” Kosmyna said about getting into the same dormitory as Harry Potter. “I know how [the system] works.”

Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.