Friday, 3 December 2010

Brain-computer Interfaces. The Future of Computing?

It all started with the need to help disabled people, especially quadriplegics, communicate and interact with their environment. Well, perhaps science fiction films like the Matrix also offered a couple of ideas, but this technology is not exactly being developed the way it was pictured by these films.

Image source
Here we see an older prototype system intended for paralysed patients to help them move their right hand with commands from their brain, so that they could hold a glass of water for instance. It is rather bulky and cable based but still non brain invasive (not the Matrix "plug it in" style). The patient wears a special cap with electrodes that monitors his brain activity EEG style, and the signal is processed and translated to familiar binary code by a computer unit. The computer then sends the commands to an external control unit that directs accordingly the arm and hand, through the electrodes implanted in them. A quite complicated setup, clearly not ready for every day use by non patients.

The next step was much smaller, simpler and wireless :

Images source

This is the Epoc Neuroheadset from Emotiv , already on sale -only to US residents- for quite some time.
It was not designed for patients though but for gamers. Specific games can be controlled with thought alone without using a mouse, keyboard or joystick. It could be possibly be used by other games too, via plug-in software.
Its wireless side is as simple as using a Bluetooth hands free unit. Along with the headset you receive a special USB dongle you plug in your PC and the pair communicates wirelessly.
Last but not least there is the Mindset headset from Neurosky, also on sale : 

Image source

This one bundles headphones, a microphone and a single sensor in one package. While Epoc uses 14 sensors Mindset uses only one, which rests on your forehead. It is also wireless and because it uses Bluetooth it can even be used with smartphones. According to Neurosky you can control with it specific games but also use it with various educational applications (not yet programming I guess).

I find it rather strange that, although voice recognition was never made usable, researchers are essentially bypassing it and moving forward with more sophisticated thought control systems. Both of the above companies started with funds from DARPA. Obviously the Pentagon foresees military applications here. It might take a while to make usable systems for more general use but who knows, perhaps in five years I could have written this article without striking a single key!

Sources cited above but what motivated me to write this was this excellent article from
MIT's Technology Review.

© 2010  Nikolaos D. Skordilis

Originally published on Computersight

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