Samsung’s (Very) Early Attempts At Thought-Controlled Mobile Devices

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Samsung’s Galaxy smartphones are controlled by touch, gesture, eye movement—and your mind. Well, not exactly that last bit. At least, not yet. Perhaps half in the name of science, half for publicity, Samsung’s teamed up with Roozbeh Jafari (University of Texas, Dallas assistant professor and wearable computing expert) to translate thoughts into common computing tasks using an electroencephalogram (EEG) cap.

The EEG cap fits snugly onto the users’ head and uses electrodes to pick up the brain’s faint electrical signals. These signals fall into repetitive patterns when confronted with repetitive visual stimuli like blinking icons. The initial challenge was detecting and separating the right signals to accurately control the device.

In an MIT Technology Review video, a user sporting an EEG cap is shown manipulating a tablet—launching a music application, selecting the artist, and pausing and resuming music. The same test subject was able to communicate selecting icons linked to preset voice requests like, “Can I have some fruit?” and “I want to change my clothes.”

SH 105_#2The news comes with a standard disclaimer: It’s still very early going. Though the team is using a “dry” EEG cap (most use gel), it still bristles with electrodes, and the system’s slow—one interaction per five seconds. So don’t hold your breath for a mind-controlled Samsung phone or tablet. The firm has no such plans. But down the line? Who knows.

Samsung’s lead researcher on the project, Insoo Kim, told MIT Technology Review, “Several years ago, a small keypad was the only input modality to control the phone, but nowadays the user can use voice, touch, gesture, and eye movement to control and interact with mobile devices. Adding more input modalities will provide us with more convenient and richer ways of interacting with mobile devices.”

There’s potential for this kind of technology to assist quadriplegics and those suffering from locked-in syndrome. The system's 80%--95% accuracy is enough to be of use. And whereas past examples of brain-controlled devices for the disabled—like this wireless thought-to-speech device and, more recently, BrainGate2’s mind-controlled robotic arm—are brain implants, EEG is non-invasive.

Whether this tech shows up in commercial phones, tablets, or life-enhancing devices for disabled folks—it’s pretty amazing you can think a thing and make it happen onscreen. What will we control with our thoughts ten and twenty years from now?

Image Credit: SMI Eye Tracking/Flickr; Tim Sheerman-Chase/Flickr (Note: Samsung EEG cap is not shown)

Jason Dorrier

Jason is managing editor of Singularity Hub. He cut his teeth doing research and writing about finance and economics before moving on to science, technology, and the future. He is curious about pretty much everything, and sad he'll only ever know a tiny fraction of it all.

Discussion — 3 Responses

  • Maxime Depondt May 2, 2013 on 10:16 am

    That’s the obvious next step of glass like devices.
    You don’t need to map brain activity very precisely to get some basic controls over your device. Just one logical operation would already be usefull I think.

  • nostrumuva May 2, 2013 on 3:53 pm

    This tech already exists and has for several years, and is already available for purchase at the consumer level and getting pretty inexpensive recently too. A device like the NeuroSky Mindset Mobile can collect eeg signals in a non-invasive way (dry sensors, no need to shave your head), and transmit that data wirelessly over bluetooth to an android device, and then apps like “eegID” on the google store can collect that data and email it to you, or there are other apps to play games and such using the headset. Whoever wrote this article didn’t do their research. Samsung is several years late to the game. You don’t have to wait 20 years it’s already available.

    • James McQueary nostrumuva May 12, 2013 on 8:29 am

      I partially disagree; the basic tech is there (EEG has been around in some form for quite a long time), but current consumer products are basic to the point of novelty. Using NeuroSky as an example, it seems like their products respond to general brain states (focused/unfocused) and basically give you a yes/no switch you can activate with your mind. Some of them also register blinking. Don’t get me wrong, that’s still very impressive – but also very limited. I like the concept, but I’m not going to buy one. Think about writing a program that only takes True/False input from the user; there’s a lot you can’t do in a user-friendly way.

      Getting from there to tasks like launching apps on a tablet or selecting one of several icons is a big, incredibly important step to turn this into something usable. If there are commercially available EEG products that can do that, I haven’t seen them yet. Knowing a player as big as Samsung is researching it (and even has early prototypes) isn’t groundbreaking, but it is kind of a big deal.