Brain Computer Interface (BCI) - a technology that creates a direct connection from our brains to our computers - is beginning to reach the market via toys and game controllers. In the process, these thought-controlled sensors are inspiring innovations that, for instance, allow you to call someone on your phone by simply thinking about them.
From the first-ever thought-generated tweet, to the U.S. military funding the development of advanced prosthetic limbs, to implantable brain sensors, advancements in BCI are not only transforming the lives of people who are locked in because of total paralysis, but are ushering in an era where we will be able to build the Internet as fast as we can think.
Here's a snapshot of the stages of development that these technologies are currently in. Also see Marshall Kirkpatrick's post The Internet Brain Implant: Why We Should Say No. And if you have an opinion or a favorite BMI-based innovation not mentioned please post it in the comments below.
First Person to Think a Tweet
On April 1, 2009 University of Wisconsin doctoral student Adam Wilson became the first person to think a tweet: "USING EEG TO SEND TWEET." Wilson was wearing a cap that was connected to a standard electroencephalograph while staring at a screen of flashing letters. He wrote the software that connected his brain to Twitter in only a few days. According to the press release, "Wilson is among a growing group of researchers worldwide who aim to perfect a communication system for users whose bodies do not work, but whose brains function normally." Time magazine recognized his work as the ninth best invention of 2009.
Ever Thought About Hacking a Thought-Sensing Toy?
Mattel's MindFlex is a toy where you use your thoughts to move objects on a gameboard. The device is a headband with sensors on each side, as well as wires that that clip to your ear lobes. Thought signals read by the sensors control the speed of a fan that levitates a styrofoam ball. Once you learn to keep the ball aloft you can turn a knob that will guide the ball around an obstacle course. While this toy doesn't yet connect to your computer it's one of the first inexpensive mass-produced devices, along with Force Trainer to use a thought controlled chip. Beginning last fall, hackers began looking for a way to alter the MindFlex, and by March of this year the device was hacked to give users a severe electrical shock if they didn't stay relaxed.
NeuroSky's first commercial product is a brainwave interface headset with medical-grade data acquisition capabilities. The device has a non-gel sensor and supports a Bluetooth headset with MP3 and VoIP capabilities. The first function of the headset was to help users pay attention and focus; subsequent upgrades now allow it to help users relax and meditate. If you're inclined to design your own programs based on this device you can download the SDK, as well as learn more, here.
We featured the Emotive EPOC neuroheadset in our Smart Clothes You'll Be Wearing Soon post. The device features 14 saline-based sensors and a gyroscope. Primarily marketed to gamers, the device also helps people with disabilities regain control of their lives. Included with the device is the EmoKey, which is a lightweight application running in your computer's background. It allows you to map out thought-controlled keystrokes. This headset is the preferred device of the Dartmouth Mobile Sensing Group, which created a brain-to-mobile interface that allows you to call your friends by thinking about them.
Injectable Brain Implants
In the future, instead of wearing headsets we'll have the option of getting implants. One of the devices being developed is a 1.3mm "multi-contact brain probe" that is injected into you. Dr. Jon Spratley from the University of Birmingham says the device consists of four coiled antennas that are 1mm across. Once implanted, they unfurl on the surface of the motor cortex portion of the brain. Signals from the sensor are sent to a 16mm receiver that is placed in the hole left behind by the needle. Spratley says that this will allow "patients with conditions that lead to severe communications difficulties or muscle control problems to be able to control communications devices and other computer controlled aids."
Electrode Arrays, Prosthetics and Military Investment
Neurosurgical Focus, the university's latest research suggests that sensor advancements now make it possible for the instrument to sit on the surface of the brain rather than penetrating it. This new, less-invasive technique considerably extends the current 10-year life span of the previous 100-electrode array. This research is funded in part by the Pentagon's $55 million investment in thought-controlled prosthetic limbs. Some of the military's most advance thought-controlled software technologies might find their way to the public sector via this research program.Tiny electrodes physically plugged into a person's brain was an idea made possible by the 100-electrode Utah Electrode Array at the University of Utah. This device literally plugs into the brains of people who are paralyzed so they can map out new ways to communicate. According to this month's