Archive for March, 2010

A Mind Reading Machine at CeBIT 2010

A recurrent theme in this blog, you may have noticed, is the development of technologies that can read minds.  I’ve commented several times in previous posts on different approaches to this almost magical feat, so it’s probably inevitable that developers have now taken the first small steps in creating a commercial product.

Playing pinball with your mind (image: Daylife)

Austrian developers g.tec, specialising in medical and electrical engineering, have unveiled the Intendix system at this week’s CeBIT fair in Hanover, Germany. The firm has spent the last few years developing a brain-computer interface (BCI) and describe Intendix as the “world’s first personal BCI speller”  It’s intended audience are those people who, for any number of reasons, are unable to write or speak, giving them the ability to write text on a computer screen by thinking out the individual letters.

Intendix uses wireless technology to transmit signals from an electrode-studded cap to a laptop. More than just a simple EEG machine, the system uses multiple signals taken from the subject’s head to analyse the cortex as the person thinks of a specific letter of the alphabet. Patterns from individual letters are recorded and can then be matched with signals produced during a later “thought typing” session to produce text.  The image above shows another use for the interface; a pinball player using his mind to control the electronic flippers of a pinball machine.

BCIs have also been used to control an avatar’s movements in Second Life.  Keio University researcher Junichi Ushiba created an interface that gives users mind-based control of an avatar and had a user with a neuromuscular disability test it out in a Second Life setting.  The system taps into the cerebrum’s somatic sensory-motor area which is activated during actual or imagined movements of the body.

Now g.tec has created its own Second Life BCI, using the P300 (P3) component of EEG wave analysis to create a control interface driven by the detection of cognitive functions principally from the parietal lobe.

Futurist Ray Kurzweil ran a BCI workshop at MIT recently.  Below is a video of Ray’s virtual presentation.

My own take on these developments is that they’re a step towards equitable access to educational and  communications technology.  Professor Ushiba’s research is firmly set in the assistive technology field with the aim of giving disabled users much more control of both real and virtual environments. Ray Kurzweil’s early work resulted in the first OCR device, giving vision-impaired users unprecedented access to texts. The fact that these are command and control systems driven by the user rather than a means of controlling them tells me that the research is headed in the right direction.  From an aesthetic point of view, however, I just hope someone comes up with a solution to all those messy little wires soon.

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