Tapping Into Brain Power with Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCI)
Don’t worry I am not trying to assimilate you! This post is about a technology while not new in any way has re-caught my attention as of late. Yes I am talking about Brain-Computer Interfaces or BCIs for short.
What is a BCI you ask? Well according to Wikipedia:
A brain–computer interface (BCI), sometimes called a direct neural interface or a brain–machine interface, is a direct communication pathway between a brain and an external device. BCIs are often aimed at assisting, augmenting or repairing human cognitive or sensory-motor functions.
BCIs research began in the 1970s and the focus quickly shifted to neuroprosthetics applications. The first implant of a neuroprosthetics application in a human was in the mid-90s. However neuroprosthetics applications are not the same as BCIs as neuroprosthetics usually attaches a device to the nervous system and BCIs connect the brain (nervous system) directly to a computer. Neuroprosthetics can be attached to any part of the nervous system including peripheral nerves but BCIs are focused on attachment to the central nervous system specifically. The two terms are interchangeable as they focus on similar effects such as restoring sight, movement, hearing, etc.
The work that has been done with BCIs to restore capabilities to people is admirable. However what recently got me re-interested in BCIs is their integration with more common tasks such as typing, playing a game and navigating a virtual world.
In March of this year a team of researchers from IMEC, the Holst Center and the lab of neuro- and psychophysiology at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven introduced Mind Speller, a thought-to-text device. I am all ready an active user of speech-to-text tools such as Dragon Naturally Speak so thought-to-text is very intriguing to me.
I personally have a hard time thinking while writing (no snickering as you read this blog post 😉 and prefer to talk my thoughts onto paper and then edit the output. Also using speech to text has helped me greatly with some of my ergonomic challenges, i.e. we all spend a lot of time at a computer and it takes a toll on the body. Mind Speller takes the talking out of the equation and via a cap worn by the user reads electro-encephalogram (EEG) brainwave output which is then interpreted on the PC by signal processing algorithms, voila thought-to-text!
Game developers and console creators have been focused on movement as of late. The introduction of the Wii in 2006 was definitely a game changer. For those of you unfamiliar (is there really anyone out there unfamiliar with the Wii?) with the Wii, A distinguishing feature of the console is its wireless controller, the Wii Remote, which can be used as a handheld pointing device and detects movement in three dimensions. The recent release of Kinect for the Xbox removes the controller all together. Based around a webcam-style add-on peripheral for the Xbox 360 console, it enables users to control and interact with the Xbox 360 without the need to touch a game controller through a natural user interface using gestures, spoken commands, or presented objects and images. However many folks are predicting that movement is just the beginning and the next phase of game development will be focused on leveraging mind control and bio feedback to engage with a game.
“The last 20 years have all been graphics, graphics, graphics,” says Nam Do, the co-founder of Emotiv.
“The next five years will be about new interfaces and brain-computer interfaces will play a major role in giving users new experiences. Harry Potter will perform true magic in a game, it won’t be about pushing buttons. Headsets can also read the player’s emotions, bringing in a totally new dimension. Games will be able to constantly measure your level of excitement, boredom or fear, and tailor the action to make it challenging and exciting all the time.”
There are already several consumer headsets that use EEG, to monitor brainwave patterns and which allow gamers to control elements of the action through the power of their thoughts. The Mindset from the futuristically named NeuroSky is an EEG headset that comes bundled with its own game demo, NeuroBoy.
“You play a boy with telekinetic powers,” says the company’s Tansy Brook.
“You still use traditional mouse and keyboard controls to move and select objects, but there are a number of features that you have to use your mind for: you can relax to levitate an object, or concentrate to set it on fire which is very popular.”
A key problem with brain-computer interfaces in the past was the calibration of the sensors to read neural activity was challenging, however NeuroSky and Emotiv have solved this with proprietary algorithms that spot patterns of activity.
NeuroSky has a new headset due later this year, and is currently partnering with game makers including Sega and Square Enix. Square Enix has produced a demo of a first person shooter game, Judecca, in which players have to focus their thoughts to see invisible demons. The concept demonstrates how mind control will become an added feature for conventional games.
While the consumer headsets on the market aren’t as sleek as the holobands used in the show Caprica. They show great promise with bringing BCI technology to the masses. I know what I want for Christmas!