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Controlling Devices with Thought : From Science Fiction to the First Commercial Units - InfoBarrel
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Controlling Devices with Thought : From Science Fiction to the First Commercial Units

By Edited Mar 10, 2016 5 12

The cognitive - mechanical barrier has broken

Control of Neuroprosthesis










Occassionaly reality can be much stranger than fiction. Science fiction in particular is often the herald of real scientific and technogical breakthroughs. Whether that is a result of a prediction or whether science fiction essentially inspires scientists to fulfil what the writers have imagined remains an open question. I incline towards the latter for I do not believe in predictions. They are just cloaked prophecies. And prophecies invariably spawn, create rather than predict, future events.

In a recent piece in New York Times online magazine, futurist and film consultant Peter Schwartz reports his involvement in the Steven Spielberg's 2002 film Minority Report : "In “Minority Report,” Tom Cruise gets into a car that drives itself. We considered giving him neural control of that car, but we deliberately held back on how far biology could go. It would have overwhelmed the story. And here we are today with real neurological control of machines. It’s transformative technology. In 50 years, you’ll be able to drive cars with your mind." He may be bit conservative with this estimate, since there are already sold real commercial devices you can use for certain activities. If I did not hate predictions I would rather dare an estimate of 20 years, since there is already a self-driving car by Google, that just passed its driver's license test in Nevada - to the best of my knowledge the first such licence provided worldwide.

While it has been reported that Brain-Computer Interfaces were initially developed for the physically disabled -particularly quadriplegics- the funding of at least the simulation and prototypes stage was provided by DARPA, id est the American taxpayers. The image on the top is of an early experimental concept, intending to move the hands of quadriplegic patients with mind commands. The Pentagon obviously has little to no interest for the physically disabled, so you do not need to be a conspiracy theorist to assume that their ultimate goal is various military applications, possibly even aircraft navigation. Whether this way of device control in the military is more practical or efficient than using hands, legs and voice, might be a closely guarded secret, disclosed only to a few boasting sky high clearance.

In 2010 the first commercial devices were i

Emotiv's EPOC
ntroduced. Two startups, Emotiv and Neurosky, started selling devices for wirelessly controlling certain games and applications. At first both companies sold exclusively in the United States, yet later they expanded.

Emotiv's first unit was Epoc (pictured).  This was not designed for patients but for gamers. Specific games could be controlled with thought alone without using a mouse, keyboard or joystick. Its wireless side is as simple as using a Bluetooth hands free unit. Along with the headset a special USB dongle was provided, that you plug in your PC and the pair communicates wirelessly.

Neurosky's break into this market was with Mindsky. While Epoc bore 14 sensors Mindsky (pictured below) bore just one. It was essentially a pair of not too bulky headphones with a sole sensor resting on your forehead.

Neurosky's Mindsky
The setup also included a microphone. It is a quite smart design, since with Epoc you also had to use a separate mic and headphones to play games that required both, while Mindsky was an all-in-1 package. Both Mindsky and Epoc used Bluetooth for the wireless link with the PC.

Emotiv and Neurosky both started with DARPA funds. If you click their links you will see that this year's designs are even more compact and stylish. Their possible aplications have also greatly expanded, many more games are supported and not a few applications are already coded with thought commands in mind.

It is absolutely exciting isn't it? We have not yet mastered machine translation -not by a long shot-, we are not even close to speech recognition, yet we already have the first form of biomechanical interfaces we can access by thought alone. Just a decade ago, when Minority Report was released, this was considered impossible, belonging solely in the sci-fi realm. The devices above are still niche, confined to a limited industry and there are many more bugs to squat. Yet the breakthough it this : for the very first time it was made possible to literally achieve "thought over matter" with technology. To use our thoughts alone, by scanning our brain waves, to influence and specifically use a machine. The cognitive - silicone barrier has broken. This is the technology that one day will lead to have even our dreams recorded and reproduced for viewing on Youtube (or its successor),  as depicted in the beautiful 2001 film FF : The Spirits Within The barrier has broken. Now the flood will not take long.

(Partially inspired by the Technology Review 2009 article "The Best Computer Interfaces: Past, Present, and Future")

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Comments

Jun 6, 2012 12:11pm
hillloyd
Awesome article.
Jun 6, 2012 4:49pm
Pindar
Thank you hillloyd!
Jul 3, 2012 7:01am
PhilJohnson
Very nice! Even growing up around technology, I'm always amazed at the things we're able to accomplish.
Jul 4, 2012 1:58am
Pindar
Thanks a lot Phil. Indeed, the real world will always be more amazing and stranger than even science fiction!
Jul 4, 2012 12:24am
mattwalker
Yeah I do have same thought. I am completely agree with you.

Thanks for a wonderful article.
Jul 4, 2012 1:58am
Pindar
Thank you Matt!
Aug 28, 2012 6:39pm
Marlando
Hi--not only an intriguing article but it's a smart piece! I love topics about the brain because I have such strong opiions that its own technologies is far more amazing than we now know in terms of creting our realities. Anyway, two big thumbs up from me.
Sep 6, 2012 3:42pm
Pindar
Thanks a lot Marlando, I am checking you out now! I will also try penning a few more neuroscience articles, particularly on how the emergent properties (Ilya Prigogine etc) of the brain came to.. emerge :)
Nov 17, 2012 2:02pm
david021
good article! I would love to see how the market for these devices expand, in the next 5-10 years!
Jan 4, 2013 5:59am
Pindar
Thank you David. I imagine BMI user interfaces will be the one that replaces the current king, touch screens. I doublt voice / speech recognition will ever really take off. Not only has it already been surpassed by BMIs but also voice is not suitable for a noisy enviroment - and when in silence it is still stupid and awkward to spell out voice commands Yet thoughts are silent. In ten years non invasive BMIs will probably be virtually invisible, sort of like the smallest current Bluetooth headset.
May 18, 2013 12:32pm
jaker29732
Wow, Amazing article, It really captivates the imagination to think how far technology has come and how far it will go. I'd love to get my hands on one of these devices and interface with an arduino to see what could be done!
Jun 7, 2013 3:01am
Pindar
Thank you Jake!
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