GADGETS

Mind-meld! Top brain-controlled tech

Neuroscientists are racing to perfect brain-computer interfaces and as they do, the line between sci-fi and reality blurs. Iron Man exoskeletons, Matrix-style brain downloads and Vulcan mind-melds feel within reach. Read more.

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If we can think it, we can control it.

“I think nothing is impossible up front,” said Deniz Erdogmus, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Northeastern University specializing in noninvasive brain-computer interfaces or BCI for short.

He and his colleagues are developing a brain-controlled keyboard to help people with speech impairments communicate rapidly. While we’re not at Spock level yet, Erdogmus shares some of the most promising brain-controlled tech out there.

ARS ELECTRONICA

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The MindWalker exoskeleton debuted in Belgium and is currently in clinical trials.

The idea to construct Iron Man-like exoskeletons controlled by the brain has been around for a while, Erdogmus said. But in reality the driving forces are medical and include restored movement for paralysis patients. Last year the noninvasive MindWalker exoskeleton debuted in Belgium and is currently in clinical trials.

This exoskeleton is intended to work with a cap containing lightweight EEG biosensors, although New Scientist reported recently that the motors have interfered with the signal readings. The project team expects to begin commercializing the MindWalker in five years.

HELEN THOMSON, NEW SCIENTIST VIDEO

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Several teams are advancing machines to decode brain signals and translate them into speech or text

While cool, robotic appendages aren’t number one on the wish list. “According to my clinical collaborator who deals with locked-in people on a daily basis, people want as much independence as possible,” Erdogmus said. “The top desire is to communicate.”

Several teams are advancing machines to decode brain signals and translate them into speech or text. When Boston University neuroscientist Frank Guenther and his team collaborated with Phil Kennedy of Neural Signals Inc., they made headlines by helping a lock-in man use his mind to articulate vowels in 2009.

Last year Brian Pasley at the University of California Berkeley and his colleagues demonstrated an algorithm to interpret signals from patients having surgery to treat epilepsy or a tumor. Another program reconstructed what they were thinking. While it could only parse some words, it’s closer to a thought translator.

VERNON DOUCETTE AND KALMAN ZABARSKY

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Mind-control technology was used to manipulate this humanoid PR2 robot named Hobbes.

When you can’t manage tasks by yourself, perhaps a brain-controlled robot could assist? Computer science and engineering professor Rajesh Rao and his colleagues at the University of Washington are developing interfaces for doing just that.

Rao’s group tapped a humanoid PR2 robot called Hobbes made by robotics research lab Willow Garage. Then they created a system so that a human wearing an electrode cap could monitor and control Hobbes remotely, getting him to perform basic tasks like selecting an object from a table, picking it up, and moving it to a specific spot.

The robot succeeded even though the system relies on surface-level brain signals. “From my perspective, we can design applications that would suit people who don’t want their skull drilled,” Erdogmus said. “If the performance is acceptable, it’s less risky.”

YOUTUBE SCREEN GRAB

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The BrainDriver system allows a person to steer a car using his own brainwaves.

Cars can already drive by themselves so it’s no surprise that scientists are working on ways to make them even smarter by hooking them to our brains. In 2011, German researchers at the Freie Universitat Berlin demoed the BrainDriver, a car that can be steered using the driver’s EEG. But the driver still had to go through mental training first.

Erdogmus referenced work by Scott Makeig, research scientist and director of the Swartz Center for Computational Neuroscience at the University of California San Diego. His system could give drivers alerts if they appear to be falling asleep. Last year Makeig put new lightweight mini EEG scanners into a helmet to monitor airplane pilots’ mental states.

“People in the noninvasive area call these types of interfaces passive brain-computer interfaces,” Erdogmus said. And they’re becoming more accurate all the time.

AUTONOMOUS LABS

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The Unlock Project is being developed so that a locked-in person can control everything in his home with his mind.

When he’s not working on a thought-to-speech translator, Boston University’s Frank Guenther is part of a multi-university initiative called the Unlock Project. The idea: make an open-source brain-computer interface so that locked-in people can control everything in their homes. Unlike other BCI applications, the Unlock Project works with noninvasive EEG.

Erdogmus said he and his colleagues recently started partnering with the project. Already, they have open-source applications like text entry to a computer or changing the TV channel, he said.

See more fascinating mind-control gear at Discovery News.

THE UNLOCK PROJECT

Mind-meld! Top brain-controlled tech

Neuroscientists are racing to perfect brain-computer interfaces and as they do, the line between sci-fi and reality blurs. Iron Man exoskeletons, Matrix-style brain downloads and Vulcan mind-melds feel within reach. Read more.

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