Advancements in Brain Control: Wheelchairs that Move by Thought

The seventies gave the world “soul power” and now the new millennium is moving on to brain-power. There has been a flurry of postings here at Singularity Hub within the past few months about moving past the constraint of appendages and controlling computers directly with the brain. To get up to speed, check out the Singularity Hub posts about the brain-powered robotic-armed wheelchair, brain Twitter, and the Emotiv Epoc gaming headset. There are two camps in the brain-controlling debate, with non-invasive techniques doing battle against the more sensitive intrusive devices. Our money is on the intrusive, direct linkages to the brain, but a win for either camp would certainly do wonderful things for society. Even as the keyboard and mouse are under attack by touch-screens and other new technologies, the final frontier of brain control is making steady progress.

That's Not a Horse! It's Just a Man Behind You With Two Coconuts!

For those in the non-invasive camp, however, it will be a bit of a wait (check out Braingate for the status of invasive techniques). As is proven with the Emotiv Epoc, the technology is not quite there. Thought controlled computers are still a bit of a chore for the able-bodied but, for the disabled, are already making quite an impact. The newest gadget in personal mobility is the thought-controlled wheelchair, and this iteration seems to have quite a complex navigation system. Rather than go with the smile forward, blink to turn method that Cuitech Inc. took with the Epoc-equipped chair, researchers at the University of Zaragoza adopted a method similar to the brain-Twitter interface.

The user focuses on a point onscreen and, as the point blinks, the headset can determine at which area of the screen the user is looking. For the wheelchair interface, a laser is used to scan for obstacles and the user is given options by way of a 3-D map on the computer screen. Although the wheelchair is limited to about two processed thought-commands per minute, the route is already planned into the chair’s navigation system, so there is not much need for more intense user input. The slow input time is presumably due to the accuracy of the computer system, where because the electrical impulses that the headgear measures are so small, many measurements need to be taken for the same action. Take a look at the video for a demonstration.

As the technology improves, researchers are hoping that they will be able to process more commands in less time with the same accuracy. This would allow directional changes on the fly, rather than picking a pre-charted destination. The laser system that scans for obstructions also boasts a crash avoidance system, which allows for safe travel in the vehicle even though it is relatively slow to respond to driver instructions.

So far, the system has been tested on able-bodied and disabled people with great success. Currently, use of the wheelchair is limited to about two hours because the conductive gel that is used to create a sound contact between electrode and scalp begins to dry out. Researchers are looking into a more long-term method of increased conductivity, allowing the chair to be used all day.

Technologies such as these are the first step in producing a thought-controlling society. Even though two commands per minute or 10 tweeted characters per minute may seem slow to most, those who do not have the luxury of such rapid communication and transit can now benefit. Even this technology, however, may just be an interim solution until the invasive procedures are perfected, allowing a direct linkage between the brain and the computer. Nobody that we know can tell the future, but our tea leaves are telling us that the brain will eventually be wired directly into a computer through an invasive solution. The only question is: how soon until we get there?

Andrew Kessel
Andrew Kessel
Andrew is a recent graduate of Northeastern University in Boston, MA with a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering. While at Northeastern, he worked on a Department of Defense project intended to create a product that adsorbs and destroys toxic nerve agents and also worked as part of a consulting firm in the fields of battery technology, corrosion analysis, vehicle rollover analysis, and thermal phenomena. Andrew is currently enrolled in a Juris Doctorate program at Boston College School of Law.
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